THERE IS A TIME for subtlety. Dinners with the in-laws, business meetings, U.N. negotiations — all of these benefit from a tempered, slightly muted approach. And the same goes for drinks; there is a time for a nice, gentle LaCroix or cucumber water. But sometimes, like the tail end of a sticky summer when you just went to your first concert in more than a year and you’ve got a rack of ribs on the grill and some 10/10 matched with you on Tinder, you want something that screams rather than whispers, something with a flavor profile like an atomic bomb full of rocket ships and fireworks. And if you are in such a mood, there is no better summer treat than a mangonada.
The best place to get a mangonada is usually a Mexican food truck or snack shop, of which there are many in Seattle. Scan the vivid, often-voluminous menus of chile-drizzled snacks and ice cream confections for the mangonada, or mango chamoyada. It’s a cup of bright yellow streaked with screaming red that is essentially a drinkable version of that ever-popular Mexican snack: chile-spiced mango.
What you’ll get is essentially a sippable quasi-smoothie made of shaved ice; fresh mango chunks, mango purée or mango nectar; and lime juice; dressed liberally with the ubiquitous, spicy chile-lime powder called Tajin. All that mango is punctuated by a swirl of pleasantly spicy chamoy sauce, and frequently garnished with chunks of candied tamarind, chile-crusted tamarind straws and a Tajin-encrusted rim. The result is a refreshing, bombastic ambrosia that is intensely sweet, salty, tart and savory all at once, something that must be excavated rather than sipped, and that will banish the memory of anything else you might have eaten that day.
The key ingredient in a mangonada is the chamoy sauce, which is the soul of tartness itself; it’s a combination of chile, lime, salt, citric acid and fruit such as apricot or tamarind flavor. The practice of eating chile with fruit transcends cultures; my family in Indonesia favors slightly underripe mangoes dipped in spicy chile-based sambal. And the concept of chamoy is, in a way, a fusion food, created in Mexico by way of Asia. It derives from a pickled stone-fruit snack called see mui in Cantonese, which is itself related to Japanese umeboshi, a snack made of salted ume plums or apricots pickled into sour little balls of delight.
In the 1950s, a Japanese immigrant, entrepreneur and survivor of Mexico’s WWII Japanese internment camps named Teikichi Iwadare began producing umeboshi snacks in Mexico and called them chamoy, possibly in reference to the Chinese term (or the related Filipino term tsampoy), and this might be the origin of its popularity in Mexico. These tart, spicy little fruit snacks (in the Americas, they’re usually made with apricots instead of plums) have long been popular as a candy in Mexico and Texas, and you’ll sometimes hear the term “chamoy” used to refer to these candylike confections. The sauce chamoy comes in various degrees of viscosity, from sticky paste to squeezable condiment, but it’s the squeezy version that streaks brilliantly through your mangonada.
Of course, mangos and tamarind aren’t native to Mexico, either. Mangoes are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and tamarind to tropical Africa, but both were imported in the 16th century by the Spanish and Portuguese. One ingredient definitely does hail from Mexican soil — the chiles. They also were exported to Asia by those wonders of imperialism and cross-cultural crop proliferation, the Spanish and Portuguese. Their rapacious need to conquer the world’s trade, despite its myriad sins, contributed much to global gastronomy. And it’s this combination of sweet mango, tangy pickled fruit and lingering (but rarely too-hot) chile that makes the mangonada a drinkable Carnivál parade, inundating every taste bud you’ve got to maximum satiation.
Mangonadas are increasingly available stateside, and you now can get them even at Baskin-Robbins, albeit in what I would consider a watered-down form. For the real thing, hit up your local Mexican snack joint, like Antojitos Locos or the “Best Roasted Corn Stand” in Burien, or the El Malecon food truck or La Garrafita in Seattle. If you’re feeling even more festive than usual, you can get them with extra chamoy-drizzled fruit spears sticking out the top like a dessert Bloody Mary, with the combined fruits of centuries and several continents contained in every intense, palate-blasting bite.