A Very American Mango Pie, Inspired By Indian Aunties
A few days before Thanksgiving, I visited my friend Hrishikesh Hirway at his home in Los Angeles. The first thing I noticed was the unusual group of ingredients sitting on his kitchen counter: a container of Cool Whip, a premade graham-cracker crust and a can of Alphonso mango purée. No matter how I tried to make sense of this combination, I couldn’t get it to add up to anything recognizable.
Hirway, a lithe, thoughtful man with a soft, buttery voice, triumphantly announced, “I’m making mango pie.” While he’s an extraordinarily talented musician and the creator of the popular Song Exploder podcast, my friend isn’t much of a cook, so I was intrigued. I told him I’d never heard of such a thing. “It’s my mom’s,” he said. When Hirway was a kid, his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Maharashtra, in western India, began hosting Thanksgiving. The meal soon evolved into a hybrid of a traditional Thanksgiving and an Indian potluck. “There was just an ungodly amount of food,” Hirway remembered, “and out of that cultural mash-up, my mom started making this mango pie.” She’d gotten the idea from other Indian aunties in the States, but their versions weren’t as good. “They weren’t making it with the best kind of mango,” Hirway explained. “The Alphonsos have a stronger, more intense flavor.”
But looking at the ingredients on the counter, I still couldn’t picture the resulting pie, so I asked Hirway what else went into it. “Just cream cheese, sugar and gelatin,” he responded with a chuckle. “There’s a true American quality to this pie in that you can get everything but the mango purée at Target.” I remained skeptical. I asked Hirway whether the pie actually tasted any good. Hirway is so sweet-natured that it’s nearly impossible to offend him, but with this I came close. “The filling is so light and creamy, it’s just this side of air,” he answered defensively. “There’s a little saltiness in the crust. The filling is sweet and tangy and just rich enough from the cream cheese. The pie is irresistible.”
I wouldn’t have a chance to taste the pie Hirway made that day, so I asked for his mom’s recipe. I laughed when I read the final instruction: “Do not share this recipe with anyone else!” This led me to believe she’d probably be fine with my changing a few things. I reduced the sugar, switched out the premade crust for one made from scratch and replaced the Cool Whip with whipped cream, but otherwise kept everything else the same.
The first time I made the pie, it didn’t set firmly enough to slice. It tasted great, if a little sweet, but all I could do was eat a few spoonfuls of the filling and toss the rest. I called Hirway to ask if he’d ever had that problem. “Oh, yeah, my last pie didn’t set properly, either,” he said. “You have to use more gelatin than it calls for.” He added: “My mom’s approach to cooking isn’t very scientific. She once told me: ‘It’s Indian food. There are no exact measurements!’ ”
So I tried again, this time increasing the gelatin and adding a squeeze of lime, because I feel that nearly anything can be improved with some acid. This time, the salty, crumbly crust was the perfect foundation for the golden cloud of mango custard. I finally understood what Hirway was talking about. I called him excitedly to ask if he’d describe the dessert as a mango lassi in pie form. “Sure,” he said. I could tell he was trying to be nice. “But a mango lassi has lime in it, and this pie does not.” I bashfully admitted that I had added lime juice, trying to make an argument for the balance the acid offered to the sweetness of the mango purée. “Then it’s not mango pie,” he answered simply. I replied that he’d probably find my addition of ground cardamom to the crust to be distasteful too. “If I’m already over the fact that you’re making a crust instead of using a Keebler one, then I’m not mad about the cardamom,” he said.
Why, I asked Hirway, was he so opposed to my scratch version? “There are some things that have already been perfected,” he answered, “and I think a Keebler graham-cracker crust and Cool Whip are two miracles of food science.” But Hirway allowed that even following his mother’s directions closely, he didn’t feel as if he could do her recipe justice, either. “My mom has a severe form of Parkinson’s, and she can’t cook anymore. So the pie torch has been passed to me, my sister and my dad. But whenever I make it, it still falls short of the memory of my mom’s perfect version.”
I omitted the lime juice and made the pie a third time, wondering if it really would be better with the store-bought ingredients. This time, I shared the pie with friends. Though I worried it would be overly sweet without the lime, I didn’t miss it at all, and neither did my friends. As the pie chilled, its sweetness tamed. The purity of the mango flavor shone as bright as its golden custard, tangy and rich, just as Hirway had promised. As I watched everyone go back for increasingly thin slivers, I remembered something Hirway said. “There’s something very optimistic about the way you serve yourself mango pie. You think to yourself, Oh, I’ll just take a little piece. But it’s so light and delicious that you immediately go back and take another piece, and then another, and before you know it, you’ve eaten half the pie.” It’s a good thing, then, that his recipe makes two.