In the winter of 1946, Mr Seetaram Gangadhar Sathaye from Sangli was to marry the daughter of one Mr Nitsure at a wedding hall in Narayan Peth, Pune. The wedding was going to be a three-day affair and the Sathayes had asked the Nitsures to include “ambapolichi koshimbir” in the menu on the day of the wedding.
“Ambapoli”, also called “mango leather”, is an ethnic food in India and has a chewy texture similar to soft leather. The traditional method of preparing mango leather starts with peeling and squeezing the mango for pulp. The pulp is put through a bamboo sieve to remove the fibre. The puree obtained is then spread on palm leaf mats and sun-dried one layer after another for about forty days in total.
“Ambapolichi koshimbir” is a salad of mango leather with steamed and shredded “ambapoli” mixed with curd, green chillies, asafoetida, and salt. The dish seems to have been popular and could be found included in several Marathi, Hindi, and Gujarati cookbooks published in the first half of the twentieth century.
So, it was not out of place for the groom to demand the dish be included in the menu. However, things did not go as planned. The evening edition of the Marathi newspaper “Jnanaprakash” reported on December 18, 1946, that the wedding was almost called off after some women from the groom’s party alleged that the “ambapoli” used for the “koshimbir” was locally sourced and not procured from Konkan, as was promised by the bride’s father.
Mangoes from Konkan, especially the “Hapoos” or Alphonso variety, were valued by the affluent and, hence, the newly emerging middle class.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, when the British started taking a keen interest in the “Hapoos” mango and began exporting them to European shores, absurd prices were often paid for this fruit, as much as ₹60 per 100 being given by dealers. It was considered a sign of sophistication and luxuriance to purchase and devour the Alphonso from Konkan. Those who ate the local variety were the ones who could not afford the mangoes brought from Ratnagiri. The “educated” ate only Alphonso.
“Ambapoli” and “Phanaspoli” (jackfruit leather) were made during the summer in Konkan and sent to various cities in Maharashtra. It was believed that the “ambapoli” in Konkan was made using the Alphonso variety and hence was superior to the one manufactured in Bombay or Pune because they used “Pairi” or local varieties.
When the groom’s party decided to walk off from the venue claiming that the bride’s family had cheated them, the Nitsures pleaded that they had indeed sourced the “ambapoli” from a dealer in Guhagar near Ratnagiri. However, women from the Sathaye family claimed that they could make out the lie by simply sniffing the “counterfeit ambapoli”. They were connoisseurs and needed no further proof.
The newspaper mentioned that the wedding feast proceeded smoothly after some local leaders intervened and the bride’s father promised to make it up to the groom’s family in “some other way”.
The mango has been known and cultivated all over the peninsula of India from a very remote epoch. The fruit had long been considered a valuable medicine both by Hindu and Mohammedan physicians and had formed the subject of many articles by writers on the Materia Medica of the East. In the “Bhavaprakasha”, for example, a confection made of the juice of ripe fruit, sugar, and certain spices was recommended as a restorative tonic.
The ripe fruit was considered to be invigorating and refreshing, fattening, and slightly laxative and diuretic. The kernels of the seeds were sometimes roasted and eaten as food by the poorer classes in times of scarcity. The valuable colouring matter, Indian Yellow, when genuine, was obtained from the urine of cattle fed on mango leaves. Amchur and pickles prepared from unripe mango were issued to prisoners in jail as antiscorbutics.
Jan Huygen van Linschoten, the Dutch merchant, trader, and historian, who visited India in the sixteenth century, wrote that mango was the best and the most profitable fruit in all of India, for it yielded a great quantity for food and sustenance of the country people, as olives did in Spain and Portugal. He mentioned the method of making pickles as employed by the locals.
Linschoten also elaborated on the method of making stuffed green mango pickle, which he claimed was introduced by the Portuguese. This stuffed pickle was also sold in earthen bowls by the Portuguese vendors coming to Poona from Goa and Bengal in the nineteenth century.
The possibilities of the mango at the hands of the expert preserve maker with modern appliances were boundless, and had only been touched by the Indian housewife in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries making “aamras”, and “ambapoli” – the special solace and delight of India students while in foreign countries – or mango chutney, a preparation in which mango was only one of a large number of highly flavoured substances, and the proportion of ingredients varied with the taste of every housewife.
Edward Fenton Elwin, the Anglican priest and missionary, lived in India for almost four decades in the nineteenth century, out of which a considerable time was spent in Poona. He believed that the “Hindus were rarely enterprising enough to embark seriously in any business except that which they have inherited from their forefathers and even an inherited business they usually carried on exactly in the same way as their father conducted it, without any alteration or improvement.” He thought that the few men who had a real spirit of enterprise and a sufficient fund of common sense reaped ample rewards.
Elwin lived for many years in the then Erandwana village and one of his neighbours was a young man named Harirao. Erandwana and the neighbouring Kothrud then boasted of thousands of mango trees brought from Konkan and planted by and with the encouragement of the Peshwa Bajirao II. Harirao owned the biggest mango plantations in Erandwana in the 1890s.
He had many visions of great enterprises on which he would embark, including the exporting of his mangoes for the English market. But he never got any further in this project than the manufacture of some mango jam. For the sake of economy, he put his jam into old tea canisters, which he bought cheap, and on these, he pasted labels, printed in the worst possible style.
The result was an article of commerce so shoddy in appearance that certainly no Englishman would have bought a single tin, unless as a curious sample of native products. Nor was it the kind of thing Hindus would likely buy. So, the only outcome of the great jam industry was that Harirao’s family had to live largely on mango jam for a considerable time to prevent the production from being wasted.
Around the same time, a “hybrid” dish – mango chutney – had become immensely popular in India and Britain. The Europeans living in Poona were using the chutney in multiple ways.
More about this next week.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at email@example.com