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The sweet arrival of Indian mangoes

- 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.

Distributors and business executives handling the imports predict that prices will come down during the next year or two and that the supply will vastly expand, creating a lasting demand.

The steep cost and scarcity on this first round are the result of disorganized logistics and inadequate infrastructure. India produces 14 million tons of mangoes a year, or about half of the world's total supply.

Only 60,000 tons are exported, according to the U.S.-India Business Council — not because the domestic population is eating them. More than a third of all Indian produce spoils en route to market, the victim of poor roads and a lack of refrigeration. Indian mangoes coming to the United States must be irradiated, and India has only one irradiation facility.

"With the one gateway at Nasik, how many of those can they really push out into the international marketplace?" says Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, referring to the Indian industrial city that houses the irradiation facility.

In addition, the mangoes have been coming by special air shipment, the most expensive form of transport. Mr. Somers says that among his 250 members are several cargo companies, including UPS and FedEx, that have been looking for business to fill their planes on return trips from India, flights on which the planes often go empty.

"As the supply chain infrastructure gets discovered, and as the transportation linkage gets pulled together, you will find a reduction in cost that's a benefit to consumers," Mr. Somers says. "And I do think the enthusiasm will be sustained."

Irradiation slows the ripening process and extends the shelf life of mangoes, and it is hoped that extending the shelf life eventually will buy enough time to ship the fruit by sea, a more cost-effective option. Although hugely popular elsewhere in the world, mangoes remain mostly exotic to Americans, who eat about 20 pounds of apples per person a year — 10 times the amount of mangoes.

They are, however, open to the concept, say retailers and distributors, and mainstream retailers are interested in getting Indian mangoes. But first the price has to come down and supply increase.

"Down the road when things open up and we can import them by ocean rather than air, and there's more of them, that changes the ballgame," says Richard Robinson, marketing manager of Triton International, a distributor of niche items like guava paste rolls and chocolate dipped frozen bananas.

"These first few shipments have been considered more or less a test just to make sure we can do it. Like anything else, it starts small and builds," he says.

Here are some simple recipes for making the most of Indian mangoes:

Mango lassi

Lighter and tangier than a smoothie, lassi makes a terrific breakfast drink or refreshing beverage on a hot afternoon. This recipe takes 5 minutes.

1 cup peeled and chopped mango

½ cup ice

½ cup buttermilk

1 cardamom pod, seeds removed and crushed in mortar and pestle (or about 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom)

Pinch sugar (more or less to taste)

Sprig fresh mint (optional)

In a blender, combine all ingredients except the mint. Blend on high until very smooth.

Pour into a tall glass and garnish with a sprig of lightly crushed mint. Makes 1 serving.

Sassy mango salad

This salad makes a good companion for barbecued or grilled meats. It takes 10 minutes.

2 cups peeled and chopped mango

½ cup thinly sliced tender, young celery

1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion

Pinch cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and toss well. Chill 1 hour and serve cold. Makes 4 servings.

Mango chutney for seafood

This chutney gives a slightly exotic touch to ordinary seafood. The recipe takes 5 minutes.

1 cup peeled and diced mango

½ teaspoon brown or yellow mustard seeds, ground lightly in mortar and pestle

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons shredded fresh coconut (available in Indian grocers)

½ teaspoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well.

Use to top broiled or grilled grouper, or other firm white fish. Also good on shrimp.

Makes 2 servings.

Mangoes with spicy ginger cream

This healthy, delicious dessert highlights the mango's richness. The recipe takes 8 hours.

3 cups vanilla yogurt

3/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger

1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds, ground fine in mortar and pestle (about 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom)

3 mangoes, peeled and chopped

Set a strainer over a large bowl and line with fine cheesecloth. Pour the yogurt into the strainer and place it with the bowl under it into the refrigerator. Let drain overnight.

When the yogurt is thicker than sour cream but not as rigid as cream cheese, transfer it to a clean bowl.

Stir in the grated ginger, crystallized ginger and cardamom. Refrigerate another 2 to 3 hours to let the flavors develop.

When ready to serve, put a dollop of the ginger cream into each bowl, make a well with a spoon and fill with chopped mango.

Makes 4 servings.

Peeling into that mango taste

Mangoes from India tend to be smaller and sweeter than those from Mexico and South America, which are the most common in U.S. grocers. This means the less you do to them, the easier it is to appreciate their natural tangy sweetness.

m Many Indians do little more than remove the skin and sprinkle the flesh with a bit of salt or cayenne, or with an Indian spice mix known as "fruit chaat" or "chunky chaat."

Often a mixture of salt, cumin, coriander, cloves, asafoetida (an herb found in India and Iran) and other seasonings, chaat is salty and pungent with a vaguely metallic taste that accents the fruit's sweetness. These mixes are available at Indian markets.

m Another favorite, especially in Maharashtra, the heart of India's mango country, is a dish called amras. Essentially, it is mango pulp that is scooped up with hot fried bread called puri (use pita bread in a pinch), which can be found (usually frozen) at Indian markets.

m The easiest way to peel a mango is to use a sharp vegetable peeler to remove the skin, then use a knife to cut the flesh away from the large, oblong pit. Once peeled, stand the mango on the wide end and cut the sides away, then trim the top and bottom.

m Even easier, kitchen gadget maker OXO has a mango splitter, which looks like apple cutter and corer. It works best if you peel the mango first, then use the gadget to cut the flesh away from the pit.

m If you buy more mangoes than you can eat, or simply want to enjoy them all year long, peel and pit them, then place the flesh in zip-close freezer bags. The bags will keep in the freezer for up to three months.