The African mango has an odd life cycle that can begin inside an elephant and end as wine or cake. The African mango (Irvingia gabonensis) isn't really a mango. It's a species entirely distinct from the true mango (Mangifera indica and its cultivars) often seen in salads and salsas.
The true mango found in the supermarket produce shelf has likely led a placid existence growing in an orchard in southern Asia before it was shipped overseas to be made into a fruit smoothie. The African mango grows primarily in western and central Africa, where it's also known as wild mango, bush mango, and ogbono. The seed of the fruit gained some popularity (and notoriety) as a dietary supplement in the U.S. in recent years.
In contrast to the true mango, the African mango often grows wild. It takes many years for a tree to begin to produce fruit, and this species flourishes in low-lying rainforests in places like Cameroon, where elephants roam. Elephants are more responsible for the dispersal of Irvingia seeds than any other animal species.
African mangoes are a favorite snack of the elephants, and a fruit-loving elephant with a sweet tooth can easily pluck the fruits from these trees. As the seeds are large, elephants are the only megafauna that can fully ingest them. Many seeds germinate in elephant dung. Dung is a wonderful starting medium for the tough seeds, who have survived a trip through a very large intestine.
As elephant populations decline, populations of the Irvingia tree suffer in terms of quantity and geographic distribution. When humans harvest the African mango in the rainy season, the flesh is often eaten fresh. The juicy pulp has a spicy, earthy taste. Some experimentation has occurred with using the flesh to make wine. The sugar content of the African mango is comparable to wine grapes, and the fruit ferments well.
Attempts to make wine with the African mango have produced a wine that compares acceptably to standard table wine in terms of color, taste, and sweetness. After the African mango is picked, the fruit is split by a knife to reveal the single seed within, which is full of kernels. The kernels can be used to make a somewhat-slimy condiment paste that's high in nutrients and trace minerals. This paste is frequently used as a thickening agent for soups.
The kernels can typically be dried and preserved for less than a year, owing to the humid rain-forest environment. Common methods of drying the kernels use a bamboo rack over a fireplace or sun-drying before storage.
They may even be stuck in sun-facing mud walls to dry. One interesting local tradition in southern and eastern Cameroon involves making a mango cake wrapped in leaves. The kernels are roasted and ground into a paste, then molded into a cake tin. The cake may be called Etima or Dika bread. The mixture is left to dry, removed from the tin, and wrapped with leaves. It may then be further refined by grating the cake into flour.
The uses of the African mango are not limited to cake and wine. Parts of the tree are used as lumber, oil, materials for soap-making, cattle feed, jellies and jams, juice, medicine, and even as a black dye for clothing.
The African mango is an important source of food and supplies for human life in indigenous areas, and its success is largely owed to the sweet tooth of elephants.