On April 27, 2007, a shipment of 150 boxes of Indian mangoes arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in what The New York Times described as “probably the most eagerly anticipated fruit delivery ever.”
This shipment was the result of years of manoeuvring and lobbying efforts that went straight to the top; even then-president George W. Bush had been plied with an Indian mango sample. The importation of Indian mangoes into the US had been officially banned since 1989, ostensibly due to concerns over pests that might have spread to American crops. Even before the ban, mango shipments from India had been vanishingly rare.
Indian-Americans, in particular, knew exactly what they had been missing. India is the spiritual, cultural, botanical, agricultural, and culinary homeland of the mango—scientifically, Mangifera indica. The South Asian nation grows far more mangoes than any other, representing over 40 percent of the world’s production of the fruit. Over 1,000 varieties grow in India, each one celebrated and defended in its region, from the bright orange Kesar of Gujarat to the small green Langra of Uttar Pradesh.
But more important than quantity and variety is the fact that India’s mangoes are, by almost all accounts, the world’s most delicious.
“India is to mangoes as Bordeaux is to wine,” said David Karp (no relation), a Los Angeles-based fruit expert and University of California, Riverside researcher who wrote the original New York Times article on the 2007 shipment. “It’s their centre of origin and diversity and excellence, and there’s nothing better than a great Alphonso mango.”
Ah, the Alphonso; among India’s beloved varieties, none is more famous than the Alphonso, grown mostly near Ratnagiri, Maharasthra, and sometimes called the “king of mangoes.”
Many times in my life, I’ve eaten something that is supposedly the prime exemplar of its category—the best banana, the best anchovy, the best burrito—and I’ve found the quality differential to be subtle; I’ve learned accordingly to temper my expectations with these kinds of things. But the one time I was able to eat an Alphonso mango, at the diminutive fruit stand at the luxury London department store Harrod’s, I was blown away. I remember being amazed that fruit that good could actually exist. The flesh was a deep and uniform marigold colour, completely devoid of the stringy fibres that sometimes plague supermarket mangoes. The aroma and taste was not qualitatively different from the mangoes I had known, but intensified manifold, as if the souls of ten mangoes had been concentrated in just one fruit. It was the Platonic ideal of a mango, this Alphonso mango.
The overturning of the ban and the arrangement of the first post-ban shipment was largely spearheaded by a Pennsylvania dentist named Bhaskar Savani, who was born and raised in Gujarat but moved to the United States in 1990 to attend dental school.
“My father used to come in the summertime and smuggle mangoes for me. And he got caught one time,” Dr. Savani told me over the phone in December. “I was outside of JFK Airport looking for him. Sure enough, he shows up three hours later; he was smelling like mangoes completely. He said he had to stay because the USDA inspector told him to throw the mangoes in the trash can. He ate as much as he could, like three or four kilos of mangoes.” This episode set the young dentist off on a convoluted six-year mission to understand and eventually defeat the ban.
It was on a visit to India in 2006 that Bush tried an Alphonso mango, announcing to Singh that it was “a hell of a fruit.”
Savani’s research convinced him that the ban was as much due to political reasons and bureaucratic inaction as it was due to legitimate phytosanitary concerns. Mango stakeholders with operations in Latin America, the source of nearly all mangoes eaten in the US, feared competition from India, with its copious production of delicious mangoes. And the potential pests could be neutralised by irradiating the fruit, a practice that had already been employed in sterilising meat and other produce, and which harms the taste and texture of a mango less than the hot water treatment used for most mangoes imported from Latin America.
Ron Somers, then the president of the US-India Business Council, recognised an opportunity. “I got roped into this thing because we were at the time at the cusp of an extraordinary period in US-India relations that relates to the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal,” he told me in a December phone call. Bush and then-Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh had been negotiating the separation of India’s civil and military nuclear facilities, which Somers described as having a secondary effect of bringing India to the table as a more prominent trading partner. “And here we had this nagging issue of why can’t we be importing more Indian mangoes and help out the Indian farmer. Such an extraordinary fruit, the king of fruits.”
During the course of the nuclear talks, Savani and Somers sought to bring the mango issue to the leaders’ attention. It was on a visit to India in 2006 that Bush tried an Alphonso mango, announcing to Singh that it was “a hell of a fruit.”
The team learned that, auspiciously, the US Trade Representative had been lobbying to get Harley-Davidson motorcycles into India. The motorcycles, as iconically American as mangoes are Indian, had been disallowed due to strict emissions standards. Ultimately, a deal was arranged that basically swapped access for Harleys into India with that of mangoes into the US.
Savani’s shipment arrived in New York to a veritable media frenzy. Outlets in both India and the United States celebrated the arrival, as well as the diplomatic triumph of a symbiotic Harleys-for-mangoes swap.
Indian mangoes seemed ripe to gain a significant foothold in the US. Reports suggested that eventually these fruits would end up ubiquitous enough to make their way into McDonald’s smoothies, or onto the shelves at Costco. During a small WNYC-organised radio taste test, a pre-fame Dominique Ansel, who would eventually invent the Cronut, called an Alphonso mango “amazing” and apparently asked for Savani’s phone number. Some even expressed concern about India’s ability to keep up with the subsequent demand.
But now, more than a decade later, these Indian mangoes are virtually nowhere to be found. Alphonsos never seemed to show up at specialty produce stores, let alone at McDonald’s. The promise of widespread access to the world’s most delicious mangoes seems to have gone unfulfilled.
So what happened?
I regret to inform you that your mangoes suck. You may think I’m making a snap judgment with that statement, but the current mango production and importation infrastructure nearly guarantees that if you eat a mango in the United States, it is one of a few varieties grown in one of a few places. According to the available USDA data for 2017, 73.3 percent of mango imports into the US came from Mexico. Add in Peru and Brazil, and you can account for over 90 percent. (India, on the other hand, represents just 0.18 percent of American mango imports, or about one in every 500 mangoes, despite growing almost half of the world’s supply.)
The most prominent mango among these is the Tommy Atkins, a big, bland, fibrous, red-tinged-with-green variety that almost crunches when you bite it. Even if your most recent recent supermarket mango acquisition wasn’t a Tommy Atkins, it was probably one of a related mediocre variety, likely the Kent.
The origins of these shitty mangoes can shed some light on our gustatory misfortune. In the late 1800s, a number of attempts were made to grow mangoes in the United States; most of the plants and fruits either died in transport or languished after planting. Then, in 1889, an American professor in Pune, India sent 12 trees of six varieties—Alphonso, Banchore, Banchore of Dhiren, Devarubria, Mulgoba, and Pirie—to the Federal Department of Agriculture in Washington. The material was then sent on to horticulturalists in present-day Palm Beach County, Florida. Nine years later, only two trees, an Alphonso and a Mulgoba, were alive, though the Alphonso was sickly.
In 1898, the Mulgoba finally began to fruit. Because it succeeded where all others failed, the Mulgoba was propagated throughout southern Florida and became the ancestor of nearly all our mediocre commercial varieties, mostly named for the landowners on whose property a particularly productive Mulgoba-derived descendent originated: examples include Captain John J. Haden of Coconut Grove, Thomas H. Atkins of Broward County, and Leith D. Kent, also of Coconut Grove.
The fact that all mango trees other than the Mulgoba died was not an effect of neglect, amateurism, or bad luck. Mangoes were simply out of their element in Florida. The Indian varieties tend to grow in areas that are hotter and drier than (or at least different from) the conditions in Florida, and even today, South Florida represents a geographic and climatic extreme in the fruit’s range of potential survival. The Mulgoba got a lucky break.
But there’s also something fishy about the American Mulgoba. The one that survived in Florida looked nothing like the Mulgoba in India, or any Indian variety for that matter. It may have been mislabeled, it may have been a coincidental mutant, or it may have actually been the result of some other rootstock; whatever the origins of the Mulgoba, it was not one of the beloved Indian varieties. Though the Alphonso almost survived, it was an offbeat Mulgoba that just happened to make it in Floridian conditions, and so we’re stuck with its lame descendants.
It was agricultural productivity rather than taste that propelled the proliferation of these Florida varieties. Tommy Atkins himself submitted his eponymous mango to the Florida Mango Forum repeatedly in the 1950s, and though the fruit was summarily rejected for its blandness and tough, fibrous flesh, it grew well, and so farmers and industrialists subsequently planted it and other high-yielding Florida varieties throughout the Americas.
There are a number of reasons why we get so much of our produce from Latin America, and particularly Mexico. Land is abundant and cheap; the sun is strong; labor is inexpensive; and most importantly, it’s close to the United States. Much of the final consumer price of a fruit comes from transportation costs, and produce can simply be driven into the United States from Mexico by truck. From South America, large hauls via container ship can arrive long before the fruit’s shelf life expires, and economy of scale keeps transportation costs low.
“Whenever these mangoes hit the United States, whether [the shipment is] arriving in Newark or whether it’s arriving in some other major airport, the word spreads like wildfire, and the mangoes are gone within a day."
The system of growing Florida hybrids in Latin America—mostly Mexico—and sending them to the US by truck or container ship isn’t perfect. But the industry is content for now; high quantities of mangoes can reach stores without spoiling, sell for cheap, and please consumers that don’t realise how much better mangoes truly can be.
India, unlike Mexico, is very far from the United States. This is, and always has been, the primary obstacle to mass importation of mangoes from India. Ground shipping is out of the question, unless James Bond or Bruce Wayne wants to lend Dr. Savani some high-speed, amphibious trucks for cheap. At two to three weeks or more, the marine voyage is just a bit too long, and the fruits didn’t hold up so well the few times importers have tried this method.
The only other option is an airplane. This is how the only viable Indian mango shipments have been transported, including all of Savani’s. But it is, of course, significantly more expensive than getting a Tommy Atkins to your grocery store from Latin America by truck or boat. “Most of the money we spend is in air transportation,” Savani said. “Air transportation is three times costlier than the mango itself.”
USDA protocols provide another significant bottleneck that can delay shipments, increase prices, and limit the potential quantity of Indian mangoes coming into the US. The mangoes have to be irradiated, and there are only two USDA-certified gamma radiation facilities in India. This irradiation process has to happen under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. “As of last year, the USDA inspector goes there, we have to provide a nice five-star hotel and a car, and that cost will be divided per box on the exporters,” Savani said. “And the inspector will work only two to eight hours.” This bottleneck, however, may soon be alleviated, as the USDA is beginning to delegate the oversight to locals.
Despite these obstacles, Savani is actually doing pretty well. He sells about US $1 million of mangoes each season, though his profit margins are small. Most of the mangoes end up in the hands of Indian-Americans, who find out about shipments via word-of-mouth.
“Whenever these mangoes hit the United States, whether [the shipment is] arriving in Newark or whether it’s arriving in some other major airport,” said Somers, “the word spreads like wildfire, and the mangoes are gone within a day—I mean, literally scooped up.”
“For mangoes flown by air there’s going to be limited demand, mostly just from Indians, those who have sufficient financial resources to even consider buying something that expensive,” said Karp. “But if you grew up with it and it’s emblematic of your childhood or youth, of course there’s going to be considerable temptation to buy such a fruit.”
So, just how expensive are the scarce Alphonso mangoes that reach the US?
Because there is no well-established infrastructure or standard supply chain, prices vary significantly. One listing on Amazon sells a box of six Alphonsos for $155.97 including shipping, or just about $26 per mango. These are probably flown on-demand, one box at a time, with no economy of scale.
But the biggest surprise of my conversation with Savani, after all this research about the inaccessibility of his product, was that the good dentist manages to sell his mangoes for a pretty damn reasonable price. He sells each box of ten to 12 Kesars for around $30 wholesale to members of the Indian-American community. And in another surprising revelation, Savani told me that in the past few years he’s been selling his Kesars (which he markets as “Saffron mangoes”) for between $2.99 and $3.49 each through FreshDirect, a grocery delivery company that services some of the urban and suburban Northeast.
Although the supply is limited and seasonal, this means the entirety of Savani’s stock no longer gets scooped up immediately after landing at JFK. (If your curiosity is piqued, keep your eyes on this link as summer approaches.) He hasn’t sold Alphonsos through FreshDirect yet, but he hopes to begin to in the near future, and he expects that they’ll cost only 50 cents more than the Kesars. These prices eclipse those of Latin American supermarket mangoes, which usually retain for under a dollar, but in the context of insanely delicious things, they’re not bad at all.
The extreme price variance is clear evidence that imported Indian mangoes aren’t doomed to be perpetually inaccessible; improvements to the supply chain could bring the prices down to the extent that while they still wouldn’t compete with Mexican Tommy Atkins mangoes, Kesars and Alphonsos could be within the reach of many consumers.
And furthermore, these changes could be imminent. As the USDA relaxes some of its stringent supervision protocols, irradiation facilities are being built both within the US and nearby, alleviating the aforementioned bottleneck in production. And although marine shipping hasn’t worked out yet, Savani suggested that something called “hypobaric intermodal containers” could open up that possibility in the future.
Although Savani himself has been the primary soldier in the battle for Indian mango access, he can’t continue to fight alone. Running a chain of dental offices is, obviously, a full-time job. His “mango mission,” he told me, is not to grow indefinitely, but rather to provide a taste of the homeland to his fellow members of the Indian diaspora, as well as support the local community back in Gujarat, where the importation business has helped to build five schools and protect the habitat of the last wild lion population in Asia.
But if the right people take on the challenge, Savani insisted, a sustainable and lucrative Indian mango importation business could be synthesized.
“Amazon could do a better job,” he said. “I don’t know why they aren’t doing it.”
He’s onto something. Amazon has managed to build perhaps the world’s most efficient shipping logistics systems, and their June 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods suggests that they want to be a grocery industry powerhouse. It’s not likely that any importer, whether on the scale of Amazon or a Pennsylvania dentist with a sweet tooth, will gain the necessary economy of scale to build a large and sustainable Indian mango importation business without demand. And right now, there simply isn’t much demand for Indian mangoes, because apart from the Indian diaspora, most people just don’t know what they’re missing.
“If the National Mango Board really cared about flavor, they’d be blind to the origin of the product, and they’d try and make some straight blind testing and see what the consumer really chooses."
Many of the experts I spoke with hinted that the major stakeholders in the current mango business are incentivised not to market Indian mangoes, because they mostly have financial interests in Latin American production areas. But Will Cavan, a former importer and prolific blogger of mango-related issues, basically suggested a conspiracy. (Savani called Cavan the “Trump of the mango world,” in the sense that he speaks his mind and often butts heads with authority; I’m not sure the size of Cavan’s hands or the power he wields over a nuclear button.) For years, he has been lobbying against the National Mango Board, the body responsible for marketing mangoes in the United States, through his International Mango Organization blog.
“If the National Mango Board really cared about flavour,” he said, “they’d be blind to the origin of the product, and they’d try and make some straight blind testing and see what the consumer really chooses. The biggest obstacle that the Indians have working against them is that they don’t have anyone helping them market their product, versus the National Mango Board which is locked in with these unflavourful fruits.” (Although a spokesperson for the National Mango Board assured me that “The purpose of the NMB is to promote all mangoes, regardless of variety or where they are produced,” it is true that all of the foreign members of the Board are from Latin America.)
But the first step in shaking up this status quo, Cavan added, is making people aware that they’re being sold mediocre mangoes.
“Articles like what you’re writing are going to enlighten people and they’re going to go outside of their current—I wouldn’t call it a ‘comfort zone’—the prison they’re in, eating these Tommy Atkins that don’t have any flavour.”
After this diatribe, please allow me to contradict myself: I don’t necessarily think Indian mangoes should be imported to the United States on a large scale. Even if a company like Amazon were to streamline the supply chain, the carbon footprint of any mango traveling 9,000 miles would still be huge.
We could, however, still potentially be eating Indian mangoes without the egregious carbon emissions: We could grow Indian mangoes in the Americas. This is already happening on a small scale, but it’s not easy. “Certain fruits have a certain place in the world where God has created that perfect environment,” Savani said. “It’s very difficult to replicate things like soil conditions and air conditions.”
Despite the fact that the original Alphonso trees in Florida died in that historic shipment over a century ago, there are Alphonsos currently growing in Florida. But Savani has tried them, and he estimates that they only have about 60 or 70 percent of the flavor of their Indian counterparts.
“I have smuggled graft everywhere in the world,” said Savani. “I’m trying to see if there’s any microclimatic weather that can really bring that aroma out.” Cavan suggested Peru as a potential Alphonso growing nation; nearby Ecuador is already growing his favorite Asian variety, the Thai Nam Doc Mai, on a small scale. Karp hinted cryptically that he had some venture in the works involving growing Indian-derived varieties somewhere in the Americas.
"My opinion about the Alphonso is that it’s a wild and undomesticated mango. If you take the Alphonso from the homeland, it’s not happy almost anywhere [...] It’s super sensitive."
Successfully growing Indian mangoes might not necessarily require finding microclimes that mimic the Southwestern Maharasthra coast for the Alphonso or the Girnar foothills of Gujarat for the Kesars. It might, instead, be a matter of breeding new mangoes with Indian genetics that could survive in new places.
Noris Ledesma is the Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, an epicenter of American fruit research, as well as the head of Fairchild’s mango breeding program. She currently has 650 hybrids growing on her experimental plantation in Florida, including many derived from Indian varieties like the Alphonso and the Kesar. She believes that she actually has a solid replacement for the Kesar, which she calls the jumbo Kesar, that can grow well outside of India.
Hybridizing a local Alphonso has, however, proven more difficult. “My opinion about the Alphonso is that it’s a wild and undomesticated mango,” Ledesma said. “If you take the Alphonso from the homeland, it’s not happy almost anywhere [...] It’s super sensitive. It has to have the right breeze from the Indian Ocean, the rocky red soil, the touch of the local farmer.
“Any time that I try to grow Alphonsos in different areas, even though it produces fruit, the fruit is not the same.”
She thinks a good Alphonso hybrid is not unattainable, whether it comes from her program or a breeding program in India. “But the problem with Alphonso is that the Indian consumer doesn’t want another Alphonso—they want their own Alphonso.”
This hypothetical mango snob might be right. All my conversations with mango experts recalled the concept of terroir, a phrase used in wine to explain why the same grape variety produces vastly different wines when grown under even slightly different conditions. There might be only one true Alphonso, and we might have to fly it from India if we want it in the US.
Whether Amazon figures out how to ship mangoes from India for cheap, or whether someone finds a pocket of Mexico that has the exact same weather conditions as Ratnagiri, or whether Ledesma manages to breed a less finicky Alphonso, one thing is clear: Better mangoes are likely in our future.
And we deserve better than the Tommy Atkins or the Kent. But maybe it’s up to us, America’s curious and hungry, to demand change. Call your congressional representative; call Jeff Bezos; picket the National Mango Board; print a copy of this article, fold it into a paper airplane, and chuck it over the White House fence. If we can send astronauts to the moon, surely we can realize the as-of-yet unfulfilled promise of abundant Indian mangoes in American grocery stores.
Maybe we should divert some of NASA’s funding for this. Nothing delicious grows on the moon, anyway.