- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mangoes grown in Latin America land in all manner of dishes at Washington’s fashionable Rasika restaurant, from mango-marinated shrimp to fish curry, sometimes in mango ice cream.

Chef Vikram Sunderman, however, vowed a more pared down, reverential approach after recently learning that Indian mangoes, the drippingly sweet fruit of his childhood, would be available for the first time in the United States.

“People should appreciate the true value of the mango as it is,” he says, noting that he immediately ordered nearly a dozen cases and served the fruit unadorned in martini glasses for $8.

Thanks to the government’s approval of an irradiation technique that neutralizes a pest indigenous to Indian mangoes, more than 24 tons of the fruit have arrived in the United States since April.

If you want to try one, you’ll have to look hard, order early and pay dearly. The shipments have gone almost exclusively to ethnic Indian markets, where they sell out before they even arrive.

“Our first shipment, they sold 160 cases in two hours,” says Swetal Patel, a spokesman for Chicago-based Patel Brothers, an Indian grocer with dozens of outlets across the country.

Mr. Patel and other retailers say that many of the boxes are reserved by customers in advance and that whatever is unspoken for sells out quickly. “Whoever’s getting them in their store, they’re selling out in 24 to 48 hours,” he says.

What’s the fuss? Indian mangoes — Alphonso and Kesar are among the most highly prized varieties — are considered sweeter and more aromatic than those from Mexico or South America, source of most of the 275,000 tons of mangoes consumed by Americans each year.

It’s more than a matter of flavor. Indians have a romantic relationship with what they call “the king of fruits,” revering the tree as a symbol of love, draping newlyweds with the leaves to ensure fertility and imitating its shape in the paisley design of elegant shawls.

Mango memories — such as Mr. Sunderman’s recollections of sticky-faced summers at his grandparents’ home in the Indian coastal town of Ratnagiri where he plowed through crates of the red-orange globes — can inspire swooning nostalgia.

It is a nostalgia that comes at a cost. A dozen Indian mangoes are averaging $35 to $40, a price inflated by the limited supply and the need to ship them by air to avoid the 18-day journey by sea.

“Six out of 10 people will say, ‘I remember exactly where I was when I had an Indian mango.’

“That’s what an Indian mango does. It takes you back to when you were a kid,” Mr. Patel says.

Not everyone buys into that, including some of the Indian grocers selling the mangoes.

“It’s ridiculous to pay such an amount for mangoes,” says Ravi Singh, owner of Global Flavors in Nashua, N.H. He sells — and sells out of — boxes of 12 Alphonsos for $45, but he predicts consumers will soon return to cheaper options. “A mango is a mango,” he says.

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