The Indian mango took its last formal bow for 2007 last week. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice received a gift basket filled with the precious fruit at a Washington DC summit in the presence of Reliance Industries Ltd chairman and CEO Mukesh Ambani and commerce minister Kamal Nath. Once again, the mango became a symbol of political and economic ties between the two countries.
For the average Indian in America, though, the first mango season was nostalgic, frenetic and, most of all, expensive. The mangoes cost on average $35 (Rs1,435) a dozen.
Despite the price, Indian grocers were bombarded with calls from eager Indian customers anxious to put their name on the waiting list for a box of homegrown mangoes. These buyers spent an estimated $1 million on the fruit in a month’s time. But the hefty price made it unlikely that the average American, whose staple diet of fruits rarely deviates from apples, oranges and bananas, would give the new fruit a try. And many Indians could not justify spending $3 for a mango, leaving them out of the milestone event.
Harish Oza was relishing his purchase of Reena’s kesar pista-flavoured ice cream at Indian grocery chain Patel’s Cash & Carry as he explained that “he was in the habit of eating mangoes”. But the resident of Mumbai’s suburb of Juhu who moved to northern New Jersey after retirement to be with his son said he continues to buy Mexican mangoes despite the arrival of his favoured alphonso. Mexican mangoes are the most popular in the US and cost an average $7 a dozen.
Indian mangoes came by air, which added to their price, say store owners. Prices are expected to come down next year as distribution becomes streamlined, competition grows, and more Indian growers secure US approval for exports. Bharat Patel, store manager of Bhavani Cash & Carry which adjoins the Patel store, said he expected the cost to come down about 50% next year.
Yet, Patel’s Cash & Carry owner Kaushik Patel said prices didn’t matter. He estimated that he sold 1,500-2,000 boxes in the month, but wouldn’t reveal his profit margin.
“At the beginning people called to reserve the boxes,” said Patel. “They would call every day to see if they were coming,” he added. Customers, he said, were frantic as there was a lag between the time the first shipment arrived in the US amid much fanfare in the first week of May and when the mangoes arrived in stores more than a week later.
The US department of agriculture had previously barred the mangoes, saying that a certain pest that the fruit attracted was not welcome in the US. The mango negotiations started more than a decade ago, and closed last year. The final rules for Indian mango immigration were published in March, explaining how to get permits to sell in the US and that the mangoes would be inspected and irradiated, which kills bacteria, pests and other undesirables in food using a radiation process.
Given that Indians living in the US could only get mangoes if they happened to travel home during the season, many regarded the fruit as priceless.
New Jersey resident Soundarya Krishnan, a 30-year-old originally from Chennai but most recently a resident of Mumbai, had not had mangoes in seven years, having visited India only in the off season. And so she paid $35 for a box of alphonso mangoes. “You can’t say they were very big,” she said. “But I am not complaining,” she said.
When the mangoes first arrived in the US this year, buyers weren’t clear where they would be available. No one could name a mainstream supermarket that carried the mangoes. Kaushik Patel said mainstream stores likely could not risk buying such an expensive fruit, when the average American doesn’t buy mangoes, and those that do would not likely differentiate which country they come from.
“India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes—12 million tonnes of the fruit are harvested each year—but it accounts for less than 1% of the global mango trade,” said a release from Washington’s US-India Business Council, which hosted the summit attendedby Rice. “America’s taste for mangoes is growing—with US demand being 99% dependent on imports, mostly from Mexico and South America—(and the market is now) at 250,000 metric tons annually, valued at $156 million,” it added. Some foodies said the rise of food television shows in the US, which demonstrate how to cook more “exotic” foods like mango chutney, mango salsa or mango margaritas, have contributed to the increased American interest in the fruit.
Store owners estimated that about 5% of customers were not Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Kaushik Patel said one Caucasian woman made an imprint on his mind as she came frantically looking for more Indian mangoes after having tasted some: “She said she found them so sweet she had to have more.”