Mangoes, memories — and motorcycles

The complicated politics of a beloved fruit

July 30, 2007

Editor’s note: This article was included in the 2008 edition of Best Food Writing.

A few months ago, when I heard that the U.S. government had lifted its 18-year ban on importing mangoes from India, I felt a little giddy. I remember eating these mangoes — these amazing mangoes — while visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in India. These mangoes weren’t like the stringy, pale yellow ones we ate back home in Missouri, the ones that were often sour and so fibrous they made me feel like flossing. These were deep orange inside, buttery soft, and sweet as honey.

They’re the mangoes my dad — back when he was a naughty little boy in Gujarat — used to steal from his neighbor’s tree. I’ve visited his old house during each of my four trips to India, and each time I imagine him, skinny and barefoot, scrambling up for a treat.

They’re the mangoes my grandfather would haggle for at the bazaar. He’d ignore small talk from the fruit wallah as he scrutinized the rows of fragrant fruit, squeezing this one, smelling that one, accepting a sample, pretending it was no good.

The king of fruits, now available in the U.S. from India.

When the fruit wallah finally caved (a special price, he said, in honor of my visit from America), my grandfather would select six or seven mangoes, which would last us maybe two days. Back at their airy apartment, my grandfather, grandmother, and I would eat mangoes after every meal, the three of us slurping away in happy silence.

Indian mangoes are known as the world’s finest because they have the competitive advantage of being the world’s first. The mango tree, Mangifera indica, originated somewhere between India and Myanmar about 4,000 years ago. Indians have been cultivating them ever since, selecting and propagating the sweetest fruits with the least fiber, and planting more than two million acres of them.

Mangoes, a symbol of love, fertility, and good fortune, infuse Indian life and culture. On special occasions, like weddings, New Year’s Day, and Diwali, mango leaves adorn the doorways of Indian homes and temples. The shape of the mango fruit inspired the distinctive Indian pattern, known in the West as paisley, that swoops and swirls across Indian fabrics, artwork, and the henna-inked hands and feet of a bride-to-be.

Indians eat mangoes ripe and unripe, raw and cooked, dried and pickled. They blend them with yogurt in a cool glass of mango lassi or serve them sprinkled with a little salt, lime, and chile powder. They simmer them down into mango chutney and preserve them in mustard oil with salt, lime, and spices like cumin, turmeric, fennel, and fenugreek. And they blend them into desserts such as the rich, milky ice cream known as kulfi.

Portuguese colonists brought mangoes to Africa and the Americas, where they now grow in the Caribbean, Latin America, Florida, California, and Hawaii. But commercial interests led growers in these parts to breed mangoes with more, not less, fiber; the stringy fiber gives mangoes a more shelf-stable structure and, unfortunately, the texture of a wool sweater. These mangoes are cheaper and easier for Americans to get their hands on, but as anyone who has ever tasted an Indian mango will tell you, there’s no comparison. Period.

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The sweet, and then the sour

India first applied for permission to ship mangoes to the United States in 1989. But rather than choose between two agricultural evils — invasive pests or the high levels of pesticides required to eradicate them — the U.S. government barred the Indian fruits from American shores. Since then, the Indian population in the U.S. has grown from just under 800,000 in 1990 to more than 2.2 million in 2004, and demand for Indian mangoes has increased along with it.

As these immigrants settled into their new homes, they got used to the compromises that came with assimilation. They seasoned Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, and potato chips to replicate the spicy, salty snacks they used to buy for a few rupees on the street. They made sweet-and-sour chutney with apple butter instead of fresh dates and tamarind. They ate mangoes from Mexico with names like Tommy Atkins, Haden, Keitt, and Kent, instead of their beloved Alphonso, Kesar, Dussheri, and Khajri.

Some tried to stuff contraband mangoes into their suitcases on return trips from India, and U.S. customs officials grew accustomed to asking gray-haired aunties in saris if they were carrying any mangoes. Most learned to settle for the New World mangoes that Madhur Jaffrey has called “pleasantly hued but lifeless rocks,” because that’s all they could legally get.

Until now.

A bowl of mango pulp from India is a richer color than a fresh New World mango.

When news of the Indian mango’s arrival hit, Indians all over America cheered. In news stories and on blogs, they recalled the mango memories of their youth and argued over which Indian variety was the best. American government officials held ceremonies to mark this significant step in U.S.-India economic relations. They ate mangoes and lauded the “King of Fruits” and “The World’s Best Mangoes.”

Forbes magazine reported that, upon tasting an Indian mango for the first time on his 2006 trip to India, George W. Bush turned to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and said, “This is a hell of a fruit.”

The first Indian mangoes arrived in the States in May of this year. As I searched for information about when and where I could get them, I read as much as I could about their impending arrival. Steadily, with each bit of new information I found, the thought of eating Indian mangoes in America became a little less sweet.

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1. by darryl on Jul 31, 2007 at 8:57 AM PDT

do you know what process, if any, is being used to bring champagne mangoes to the US? i know these are in season now and taste great, but wasn’t aware of these tradeoffs you list, which i think we all want to know about before we take a bite of anything.

2. by anonymous on Jul 31, 2007 at 1:36 PM PDT

Because mangoes, like any fresh produce, can be hosts to a number of unsavory characters the USDA would rather not introduce to American crops (fruit flies and other pests, fungi, bacteria, etc.), my understanding is that all mangoes that are imported to the U.S. must be either fumigated, immersed in hot water, or exposed to a vapor heat treatment after harvest to kill the undesirables before export.

3. by anonymous on Jul 31, 2007 at 1:51 PM PDT

As consumers, I’m not sure how we could find out exactly what each piece of produce grown in another country might have gone through post-harvest to qualify for entry to the U.S. We might not even know if its been irradiated. At the moment, the FDA is considering how to (or not to) label irradiated foods. This includes decisions about when and when not to include the radura symbol on foods that have been irradiated and also whether or not to allow the euphemism “cold pasteurized” in place of the more direct “treated with radiation”. The public comment period ended earlier this month, but its an issue you might want to watch.

4. by Annika on Aug 1, 2007 at 1:58 PM PDT

Wow! This article is truly inspiring! infact, you guys may want to put up a recipy for a “mango lassi” and link it to this page. (im sure that lots of people would love to make that special treat after all the things you wrote about mangoes!)

5. by anonymous on Aug 1, 2007 at 2:37 PM PDT

The story actually includes a link to a recipe for mango lassi and also for chundo, a sweet and sour mango chutney. There’s a box on the left side toward the end of the story that includes recipe links. Enjoy!

6. by Farmer de Ville on Apr 29, 2008 at 6:58 PM PDT

Your piece makes me miss my years on Kaua’i. There was a massive mango tree about a mile from where I made my home. When those thousands of dangling fruits began to ripen, the evening tradewinds would infused the air on my deck with a honey-sweet aroma.

There is nothing to compare with a perfectly ripe mango which you’ve picked up from the ground beneath the tree which it just fell out of.

Can’t ship ‘em, can’t fake ‘em, jeezus I miss ‘em...

- Farmer

7. by anonymous on Jul 9, 2010 at 7:26 AM PDT

I’m sure there are no equally delicious mangoes in the Caribbean...

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