Green Mango and Coconut Milk


Some of my early memories are of smells and tastes: the taste of the first summer strawberries, of apricot stolen from a neighbor’s garden, of warm rye bread for which I had to stand in line for half an hour, of mozzarella di bufala purchased from the store owner in Forlì who had secret intentions of marrying me to his son. It is difficult to imagine how to separate what came first, but the scents fascinate me, wherever they occur.

As I am peeling green mangoes for my Kerala-style fish curry, the scent of green, piney and slightly floral fruit reminds me of India. I envision small streets in Poona, a city in the state of Maharashtra, where the stalls would be laden with various fruit—towering piles of mango, inky black jamun, a local sweet-sour fruit, pink and white guava, pomegranates sliced to reveal their jewel box-stuffed-with-rubies innards, slices of coconuts ready to eat. The light refracted through the clouds is soft and radiant, filling everything with a glow that makes bright colors shine. Looking up while walking through the Old Delhi market is a dangerous endeavor, lest one to lose a sense of navigation through the dense crowds of people and moving traffic. However, whenever one manages to do so, one cannot help noticing exquisitely carved jali (marble panels), with their filigree patterns obscured by huge billboards closer to the ground.

India is a place for the scent obsessed, although at first it is an utter sensory overload. Jasmine, cumin, coriander, cardamom, mango peels, condensed milk, bananas, garbage, smell of bhaaji fried and breads roasted. It is the mélange of olfactory sensations that only can be understood when trying paan for the first time–a blend of spices, coconut, crystal sugar, rose jam and betel nuts, wrapped in betel leaves. There are also versions with tobacco. Placing the entire thing in the mouth and then taking a bite sends a kaleidoscopic refraction of sensations—from sweet to spicy to bitter to refreshing and back in no particular order. Yet, it is the light and the scents that I recall most vividly, the sheer vastness and sensation of both. It is the core of my memory, and it is what draws me back to India.

At this point, onion has already been blended with fresh coconut shavings, curry leaves and ground coriander, cumin and red chili pepper. As I smell wet masala paste, with its creamy scent, laced with green, lemony and sulfurous notes, I think of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin Sur le Nil for Hermès, which seemed to have started as green mango, lotus blossom and carrot. I set the pan on fire, add some water and let it simmer. By the time, I have to add pieces of swordfish and ivory tinged with green mango slices, the scent rising forth is intoxicating and mouthwatering, made more floral by the coconut milk addition. The fragrance of green mango melting into the juices and coconut milk lacks the sugary sweatiness of ripe fruit, while instead possessing a pleasantly astringent quality, with a teasing floral accord hiding underneath the piney notes. Once my curry is finished, and I am inhaling the buttery scent of basmati rice as it cooks, the fragrance of my kitchen is simply wonderful, good enough to be bottled.

Photo of green mangoes from



  • Tania: Good God, now I’m STARVED. Delicious description, as ever.

    (Would someone please bottle that basmati rice scent? OJ Champaca uses a touch of it, but really, not enough.) July 14, 2005 at 12:01pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, I knew basmati rice would peak your interest! 🙂 I wore Champaca on most days in Kiev (could not located Orange Revolution EDT alas), and its rice note was just enchanting. I also wish I could find something that made fuller use of it. July 14, 2005 at 3:57pm Reply

  • Robin: Have just come back to read this for a second time today V. What a lovely post, and yes, like T, it made me very hungry. Back in the days when I cooked, I cooked a lot of Indian and Thai food, and the smells are so wonderful. The smells, unfortunately, are the only part of cooking that I miss. July 14, 2005 at 8:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: R, thank you for your lovely words. I love the scent of spices as I cook Indian, Thai, Vietnamese foods (others as well, however these are my favourites because I love coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, basil, lime and lemongrass). I have not been cooking anything for the past month or so, being an itinerant vagrant. Sometimes it is great to take a break from it all 🙂
    xoxo July 14, 2005 at 8:43pm Reply

  • julien: What a pleasure to read your comments.
    I also love cooking,just last night i received some friends and made a chicken with lots of spices,some honey and a curry sauce…it was wonderful!
    I think i love perfumes also because i love cooking,eating and let my senses go…i remember the mediterranean cooking of my mother,the smells…
    Thank you for sharing that with us.
    I can’t explain why,but i feel emotional now…maybe is it nostalgy?
    Thanks again,as always. July 15, 2005 at 9:08am Reply

  • Victoria: Your recipe sounds absolutely delicious! I also love Mediterranean cooking, especially the use of herbs. My favourite herbs are basil and oregano, which are the essence of summer to me!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! It is always a pleasure to read about them. July 15, 2005 at 9:39am Reply

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