In 2007 David Karp, a Los Angeles-based fruit expert and University of California, Riverside researcher wrote a New York Times article about Indian mangoes – “India is to mangoes as Bordeaux is to wine,” he wrote. “It’s their center of origin and diversity and excellence, and there’s nothing better than a great Alphonso mango.”
In 1989 the United States imposed an import ban on Indian mangoes citing concern over non-native fruit flies. The same ban was imposed by the European Union in 2014. The Indian government has always maintained that these bans were, and still are totally arbitrary.
Even though the ban in the United States was lifted in 2007, most retailers in the United States already have well established supply chains with farmers in South America, so finding Indian mango here isn’t easy for many people unless you live close to an Indian grocery. And even if you do, mango is not easy to import, especially in small numbers. Because of this, and because of the decades long ban on imports, entire generations of Americans, as well as Indian ex-patriots have had to go without enjoying what many claim is the most delicious mango variety of them all – the Alphonso Mango.
You can go to YouTube right now and search for Alphonso Mango and see for yourself the reactions of people trying it for the first time. But maybe the most wholesome thing you’ve seen in a long time is seeing the expression on the faces of Indians who are tasting it, not for the first time, but for the first time in many years. There is something about this mango that reminds them of home. And the taste of nostalgia is always sweet – and sweeter still when it’s an Alphonso Mango!
From Mango Lassi to Aam ka Achaar (raw mango pickles), Indians and, in fact, all South Asians have long had a love affair with mangoes. Mango is the national fruit of India, the mango tree is the national tree of Bangladesh, and in ancient times, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka is said to have ordered the planting of mango trees along imperial roads for their fruit and shade. Akbar the Great (1556–1605) is said to have planted a mango orchard of over 100,000 trees! He really liked mangoes.
The sad reality is that many of us here in the United States have probably never heard of the different varieties of Indian mango, let alone tasted one, even though in India alone there are over 1000 varieties and over 40% of all mango production takes place in India. Most mangoes imported to the U.S. come from South America, mostly Mexico, Peru, and Brazil.
From a logistics point of view this makes sense. It’s a much shorter trip from Brazil to the United States, then it is from India. So even though the 1989 embargo was lifted in 2007, virtually no Indian grown mangoes make it to the U.S. market (0.18 percent in 2017).
More recent news is not much better. The 2020 Indian mango market hit a major snag with COVID-19. Indian mangoes are a luxury item, and the cost to import them is not cheap. Many retailers didn’t want to take the risk of importing something that might sit on the shelf and spoil. Combine that with India’s strict COVID-19 regulations and Indian mango exports virtually halted. It was truly a dark and lonely time to be an Indian-American longing for a taste of home.
The taste of mango signals summer has arrived for most Indians and it’s unfortunate that the only thing available for many in the U.S. is the inferior variety found on most store shelves. There is nothing like the sweet decadent flavor of a ripe Alphonso. The Tommy Atkins variety most commonly found in American grocery stores is bland and full of fibers by comparison.
But not all hope is lost! If the mere thought of another summer without the taste of a delicious mango is starting to get you depressed, you don’t have to settle for disappointing mango. In fact, the outlook for Indian mangoes is bright.
As COVID restrictions lessen, the current spike in freight prices should drop and Indian mangoes should onces again start showing up in specialty markets and Indian grocery stores. Of course they will always be a treat. Once word gets out that there are mangoes available, they tend to disappear.
But that’s okay, as long as people in the west can still enjoy Mango Kulfi (check it out, it’s better than ice cream). If fresh Alphonso mangoes are not available in your area, then be on the lookout for Alphonso mango puree. Importing the mango puree is a great option that allows you to capture the delicious flavor at its seasonal peak and not have to worry about shipping a delicate mango, risking spoilage.
However you enjoy your mango, there is no denying that for many Indians, the uncompromising flavor of Indian mangoes is a true taste of home. It’s a taste that India has longed to share with the world. If you’ve only had the same bland mango from your local grocery store your entire life, I can’t urge you enough to make an effort to find some Alphonso mango and give it a try. The first time you taste it, it almost doesn’t seem real. Could this be what mango is really supposed to taste like? Yes, yes it is.