India's mango diplomacy with the West

The loyalty to the pulpy fruit runs deep and fierce, but its variants that abound in India are yet to become a pet 
squeeze in the US and the Western world

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Sun 19 Jun 2022, 10:52 PM

Last updated: Mon 20 Jun 2022, 12:08 AM

A fruit entered a bank with a gun and said, “This is strawberry! Give me all your money!” Banana, the cashier, pleaded “I will give you the money... but please let the mango!”

Mango puns and jokes are many, but as the human goes, or as humans go, their loyalty to the mango is... humangous!

In the comity of fruits, apple has a storied place as the first fruit from the Garden of Eden, long before it became a byword for iPhones and Macs. Scientists have also found in a prehistoric West Bank village the remains of figs that they say appears to be the earliest known cultivated fruit crop. And bananas lay claim to be the most popular and widely available fruit in the world.

But in the eyes of people in the Indian subcontinent, the king of all fruits is the mango. There is no one to beat mango sheikh.

You wouldn’t think so going by the appellation for the fruit in north India: aam, which means common, although the term is said to come from the Sanskrit word for the fruit: aamra-phal. In southern India, unripe mango is variously called mangai (Tamil, Malayalam), mavinkai (Kannada), mammidi (Telugu), eventually migrating to “manga” in Portuguese, who carried it across the world. Taking its roots in India, it is believed to be thousands of years old. Botanists and taxonomists eventually acknowledged its Indian origins by conferring on it the scientific name mangifera indica. Although there are similar fruits from mangifera genus elsewhere in the world, it is mangifera indica that is seen as the truest mango.

But what about the best?

Next only perhaps to arguments on religion, movies, and cricket, (which you could say is also a religion), few topics animate passions in the subcontinent more than debates about the best mango. To those not initiated into the cult of mangoes, a mango is a mango. But that, as one writer remarked, is like going to a wine store and asking to buy a bottle of wine. There is geography, flavour, tone, colour, fragrance and other variables. There is also lore and legend. Mango loyalties run deep and fierce.

For a Uttar Pradesh-walla, there is no greater mango than a dusseri or a chausa; for a Bihari down the river, it may be a langra or jardalu or malda; further downstream for the Bengali, it could be himsagar or lakshmanbhog. Across the country in Gujarat, they swear by gir kesar and valsadi hafooz.

There is also the north-south divide. Woe to anyone who questions the primacy of Konkan’s alphonso, arguably the most expensive of Indian mangoes, named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the viceroy of Portuguese India from 1509 to 1515. In Karnataka, badami (dubbed the poor man’s alphonso) and raspuri, reign supreme, although the discerning plump for the big fat mulgova, are said to be the most distinct of all mangoes, and one that may have eventually migrated to America (more on that soon). For the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and Telugu folks, it is baganapalli and chinna rasulu.

The disputes extend beyond India. For Pakistanis, their mangoes — chief among them sindhri (from Sindh province) and anwar rataul — are the best. Although Indians would argue they all originated from undivided India — Rataul is a town in Uttar Pradesh (UP) — many varieties came from Muslim cultivators. Anwar rataul for instance is said to have been first cultivated by a farmer named Sheikh Mohd Afaq Faridi in UP and eventually made its way to Multan via a man named Anwar ul Haq. Bangladesh, too, has its eye on the mango pie, with its “own” specials, such as nag fazli and haribhanga.

In the spirit of let a thousand varieties bloom, there are hundreds of kinds of mango; indeed, the generally accepted figure is over a thousand.

Cities and towns also jostle for fame and claim as the mango capital, another scrap that extends beyond the subcontinent. From Srinivasapura in Karnataka to Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh to Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, the contest extends as far as Chapainawabganj in Bangladesh, Multan in Pakistan, and Guimaras in distant Philippines, all famous for their annual mango markets.

Then there is history, legend and folklore. The story goes that chausa got its name from the Indian ruler Sher Shah Suri, who named his favourite variety to commemorate his victory over Humayun at Chausa in Bihar. Although, it is also known as the ghazipuriya due to its early large-scale cultivation in Ghazipur, chausa is what people suck up to. Dusseri or dasheri comes from the eponymous village in UP, where a man named Mohammed Ansar Zaidi is said to have inherited a mother plant handed down for 10 generations. In the south, totapuri, also called gini mooti or kili mooku, gets its name from its shape — like a parrot’s beak.

As the world’s largest producer of mangoes by far, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the global output, India should have put its imprint on the fruit, the same way dates are identified with the UAE, olives with Greece, durian with Indonesia, papaya with Malaysia or pomegranates with Afghanistan. But as with so many other products, spices, tea, and milk, for instance, India’s huge population consumes much of what it produces — when it is not wasting it — leaving little for exports in a country not famous for merchandising and marketing its best products abroad. Countries with much lower output but higher per capita production, Mexico, Peru, and Thailand among them, have a bigger export footprint in the mango world. Lately, even Australia and Japan have stepped up, promoting rare indigenous varieties, including the Japanese miyazaki mango, easily the most expensive mango (can go up to $3,000 per kilogram by some accounts) that makes alphonso cheap in comparison.

In recent months though, India is upping its game trying to go beyond the prized alphonso it exports (mainly to the UAE and other Arabian Gulf regions), pushing a wider variety of mangoes globally. It is eyeing both the US (dominated by Mexican imports) and the European Union (EU) markets (where Pakistan has a head start), trying to make up for lost time and revenue.

For the longest time, the UAE has accounted for the highest value of Indian mango export at over 1.4 billion rupees (a relatively paltry $18 million) with the United Kingdom (UK) ranked second at about 676 million (approx. $9 million). But America, the world’s largest spender on fruits by virtue of its purchasing power and its larger population, is where the Indian government believes the squeeze will get the juice.

Consider this: The US is a major market because it both exports and imports agricultural products, including fruits and vegetables, on a GIGANTIC scale. For instance, it imports avocados to the tune of $2.9 billion annually (mainly from Mexico); from Latin and Central America, it imports bananas worth $2.5 billion. It also imports fresh grapes ($1.8 billion), and an assortment of berries ($ 2.7 billion). If India can milk the US market, it could not only fetch handsome returns, but also showcase a country’s strength beyond its export of spiritualism, spices, and software.

In May, after years of stop-start, back-and-forth efforts, Washington and New Delhi finally resolved their long-standing wrangle to green light export of Indian mangoes to the US. At a reception in India House, the Indian ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, talked up both the Indian mango and bilateral ties, saying resolution of the mango dispute is a symbol of friendship and reflection of the strength, robustness, and maturity of the India-US partnership. Guests, including lawmakers and officials from the commerce and trade departments, feasted on four varieties of mangoes — kesar, alphonso, himayat, and baganapalli — that were specially flown in for the occasion. There was wall to wall coverage in the media and much mirth and merriment over the mango tango.

In truth, it should have never come to this. America has long been fascinated by Indian mangoes. In fact, the first Indian mango export to America occurred nearly 135 years ago. It came in the form of saplings. In 1889, an American professor in Pune, India, sent 12 mango saplings of six varieties, including alphonso, mulgoba, banchore, and devarubria to the Federal Department of Agriculture in Washington. The material was then sent on to horticulturalists in present-day Palm Beach County, Florida (which has a tropical climate), where for years they tried to grow them into trees. All but two were said to have died, and eventually, in 1898, only one, the mulgoba, yielded fruit — and mediocre ones at that, leading to suspicion that there may have been some mislabelling considering mulgoba is an excellent mango.

As it turned out, it was this ersatz mulgoba that was propagated throughout southern Florida, eventually becoming the ancestor to several “American” mangoes that have long occupied grocery shelves: Among them, Tommy Atkins, Haden, and Kent, all named after horticulturists who grafted and drafted them into spin-off varieties.

But the fruit never really caught on in an America — and why would it given its very ordinariness? — where apples and oranges have long been the favourite fruits. The few Indians in America sneered at it while longing for their homegrown mangoes, which were occasionally smuggled into the US, even as every single American correspondent in India, going back to the great AM Rosenthal of the New York Times (1955) to the more recent Steve Weisman (1986), Ed Gargan (1992), Heather Timmons (2012) waxed lyrical about Indian mangoes in summer.

“Having only one (mango at a time) is like having a single canape at a cocktail,” gushed Joseph Lelyveld, the NYT correspondent in New Delhi in the 1960s, quoting the poet Ghalib’s description of mango as “sealed jars of paradisiacal honey”. And Weisman wrote in 1986: “Cool, luscious, fragrant and plentiful, the mango is known as “the king of fruit” — enjoyed by rich and poor alike and regarded as perhaps the greatest gift of summer in India, where temperatures routinely reach 115 degrees in some regions. It may also be one of India’s great contributions to the rest of the world, since historians here insist that mangoes first grew on the subcontinent and were transported to other parts of Asia and to Africa and the Americas by various tradesmen and conquerors. Indeed, the word “mango” appears to be an adaptation from ‘manga,’ the fruit’s name in the Tamil language of southern India.

Around the time Weisman wrote this, Washington, not exactly friendly with New Delhi those days, was shutting down even the modest import of Indian mangoes, citing danger of pest infestation. Mangoes from Central and Latin America, and homegrown varieties from Florida and Texas, took over American grocery shelves. The Indian mango was forgotten.

This was the situation for nearly two decades, till 2006, when the then Manmohan Singh government slipped in a delicious mango into the menu for visiting President George W Bush — virtually an aam-bush.

“Dubya”, of course, was no stranger to mangoes; both his home state Texas, of which he was the governor, and Florida, where his brother Jeb was the governor, grew mangoes. But what New Delhi plied him with was something totally different — the finest alphonso. Diplomatic dispatches of that time quote Bush as saying it was “one hell of a fruit”.

In a season of deal making, on the margins of the nuclear agreement, the two sides worked out what came to be known as a “mangoes for motorcycle” deal. The US would allow import of Indian mangoes; India in turn would allow import of Harley Davidson motorcycles, as quintessentially American as mango is Indian.

On April 27, 2007, a shipment of 150 boxes of Indian mangoes arrived at JFK Airport in New York in what the NYT described as “probably the most eagerly anticipated fruit delivery ever”.

The joy was short-lived. As it turned out, the deal revved and spluttered after several years of honest intention ran into practical problems, bureaucracy, and market conditions. Washington insisted that the mangoes had to undergo phytosanitary treatment to get rid of pests before they could be exported. The US would oversee the inspection, even in India. This made the mangoes prohibitively expensive before they came to the US, where cheaper American and LatAm mangoes had rapidly improved their taste, flavour, and looks. Not to speak of the advantage of simply being hauled across the border in trucks. On the motorcycle front too, New Delhi high tariffs choked sales of a cult bike that was already expensive for the Indian market.

For 10 years the two sides bickered over why the deal did not take off. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Finally, early in 2022, as the pandemic retreated, Indian and American officials got together to revive the deal with one simple change in ground rules: instead of the US insisting on oversight in India with American inspectors, the process would be entrusted to Indian inspectors. In early May, Pune exporter Rainbow International got a sudden request from India’s ministry of external affairs: Could they rush a consignment of choice mango varieties to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC?

The embassy event was a hit going by the turnout — present company included — and the glowing coverage that followed. But the real smell test will be when Indian mangoes will be available in everyday grocery chain in the US at an affordable price — not to speak of making it to big box superstores, such as WalMart and Costco. And whether they can persuade beverage majors, such as Coke and Pepsi and fast-food chains, such as McDonalds and ShakeShack to churn out Indian mango-based drinks. Till that happens, don’t expect the Indian mango to be America’s — or the western world’s — pet squeeze.

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