A new king and queen of mangoes

Alphonso and Kesar head spectacular new mango imports from India.

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Nita Patel bit into a lush, golden-orange slice of mango. Instantly, she was transported back to India, the homeland she left 10 long years ago.

The taste of that fruit was completely familiar and so delicious that Patel simply exhaled a blissful A-a-ah.

But this was not just any mango. It was most definitely not the pretty but bland mainstream specimens from South America that, Indians sniff, serve more to decorate the table than to be consumed. Nor was it the more aromatic, tangier Mexican imports found at many Indian grocers and sold cheap by the dozen.

This was an Alphonso from India - the hands-down "king of mangoes," as it's known. The deep-orange flesh oozes sticky juice, the texture is smooth, with hardly a fiber, and the heady aroma fills the room. And what about the flavor? The sweetness can be so intense that more than one Indian expat has described it as "heavenly."

Just weeks ago , the first legal shipment of Indian-grown mangoes - banned from import for 18 years in this country - landed in the United States, the savory payoff of international politicking and persistence by a wealthy local dentist (among others), if not a serendipitous Harley-Davidson deal. (More on that later.)

Now, this fruit of the gods has started to trickle into a handful of South Asian grocers in the Philadelphia region.

Indian immigrants are ecstatic - until the bargain hunters among them hear the price: A box of 12 Alphonsos, flown over from Mumbai, are selling for three to seven times the cost of the south-of-the-border ones.

Still, many cannot help but succumb to the lure of the golden fruit. Call it mango mania.

"It's very sweet, and no, what you say, fiber," Patel said as she tasted the fruit at the Lansdale Produce and Watershed Convenience Store in Hatfield, where free samples drummed up business. "It's our country's taste. I like."

And so she shelled out $30, bypassing the Marathon brand Mexican variety displayed nearby at a hard-to-beat $6.50 a dozen.

"It brings back memories from the home," said Ashish Patel, (no relation) owner of the produce store, one of the only places in the area selling the yummy fruits. "The price of the Indian mango doesn't let everyone have it."

It's an irony not lost on Stateside Indians. Their beloved mango may end up out of reach - available only to patrons of specialty shops, chic restaurants or fancy catalogues. As blogger Siddhartha Mitter pointed out in a posting on Sepia Mutiny, "The pleasure of the Indian mango, it seems, shall be known by elite mouths only."

Still, enough ordinary folks crave the Alphonso and its spouse, Kesar, known as the "queen of mangoes" - two of the many varieties expected to reach these shores - that Ashish Patel has fielded phone orders from New Jersey, Virginia and even Oregon. "I'm trying to get a rate for shipping," he said, recently, even as his original stock of 75 boxes dwindled to only a few last week.

Patel Brothers, a 32-store national chain with locations in North Jersey, imported its first batch a couple of weeks ago. They're selling like "hotcakes," said Talashi Patel from his headquarters in Chicago, where the price is $35 to $40 a box. "We get, and same day, gone."

India first wanted to export mangoes to the U.S. in 1989. But America's fear of a weevil pest that could hurt the domestic melon crop, as well as worries over pesticides, blocked the deal.

Three years ago, Bhaskar Savani of North Wales, an Indian immigrant turned dentist turned mango enthusiast, began lobbying for the ban to be lifted.

The grandson of farmers in India, he set up Savani Farms and exported the fruit from India to the Middle East. But he really had designs on the American upscale market, where he wanted to cultivate a mango gift-catalogue business. So Savani talked to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and contacts overseas, traveling to Washington and India. He remembers childhood summers spent in search of ripe fruit from the family orchards and the meals made of them.

"A mango should taste like a mango, not a pear," he said. An aromatic bowl of Alphonsos and Kesars sat on his desk in his Chalfont dental clinic, one of 20 offices he operates in the region.

As Savani worked the back channels, trade groups and Indian officials encouraged President Bush to forgo the ban.

The stars aligned last year when irradiation for pests was approved for Indian mangoes. During a visit to India a few weeks later, President Bush announced a nuclear energy pact - and cleared the way for mango imports.

Alas, another season passed before the fruit landed here. Logistical reasons were cited, though some Indian press reports blamed the lag on India's reluctance to allow the import of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Once the big bikes got the OK, the mangoes arrived, the story goes.

But Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council based in Washington, insisted the whole bike thing was "completely unrelated. . . . This is a story of good will."

The first boxes of mangoes reached JFK International Airport on April 27 - making headlines in India. Lucky Washington dignitaries got to savor them.

India produces 14 million tons of mangoes yearly, but exports only 60,000 tons, Somer said. Americans consume about 250,000 tons a year of the fruit.

Melissa's, an L.A.-based distributor of specialty produce, wants to boost that figure through upscale grocers. Its first shipment went to Texas, where the price was $4 to $5 apiece, a spokesman said.

Paul Singh, manager at the International Foods & Spices in West Philadelphia, said he tried to snag some a few days ago because of customer requests, only to find the product sold out. Still, he wonders: "Are people really going to buy them?"

Financial planner Kirit Desai of Cherry Hill, who immigrated in 1971, said he considered the Alphonso a perfect 10, and for that, he would pay premium "once or twice a season."

Femida Handy, an associate professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, has lived in the United States for two years after moving from Canada, where she had easy access to "exquisite" Indian mangoes at ethnic stores.

"I think they're the best fruit ever," she said. "I would rather eat one Alphonso than four of the other ones. It's childhood memories. You can't imagine the summer months without a case of mangoes ripening."


One Easy Way To Cut a Mango: Slice and Scoop

A mango has one long, flat seed in the center of the fruit. Once you learn how to work around the seed, the rest is easy. Always wash the mango before cutting it.

1. Stand the mango on your cutting board, stem end down, and hold firmly. Place your knife about 1/4-inch from the widest center line and cut down through the mango.

2. Flip the mango around and repeat this cut on the other side. The resulting ovals of mango flesh are known as the "cheeks." What's left in the middle is mostly the mango seed.

3. Cut parallel slices into the mango flesh, being careful not to cut through the skin.

4. Scoop the mango slices out of the mango skin using a spoon.

SOURCE: National Mango Board


Grilled Shrimp with Tropical Mango Salsa

Makes 4 servings

For the marinade:

3 cloves garlic, minced

Grated zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon Asian chile garlic sauce or 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped (optional)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons mirin (Asian sweet rice wine) or honey

20 jumbo shrimp (8 to 12 count per pound), unpeeled

Tropical Mango Salsa (recipe below)

1. For the marinade, in a large bowl, whisk the garlic, lime zest and juice, ginger, chile sauce, lemongrass, soy sauce, olive oil, and mirin together.

2. Devein the shrimp by cutting down the back of each shell with kitchen shears or a paring knife. Remove the vein. Rinse the shrimp under cool water and drain thoroughly.

3. Mix the shrimp in the marinade. Cover. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. When ready to proceed, preheat grill to medium.

4. Remove shrimp from marinade and drain in a strainer, discarding the marinade. Arrange the shrimp in a single layer on the grill. Grill just until cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning once with tongs. To check for doneness, remove a shrimp from the grill and peel off the shell. The flesh should be barely firm and opaque. Do not overcook.

5. Serve the warm shrimp with the Tropical Mango Salsa.

- From Food to Live By by Myra Goodman with Linda Holland and Pamela McKinstry (Workman, 2006).

Per serving: 373 calories, 47 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 345 milligrams cholesterol, 395 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Tropical Mango Salsa

Makes 4 servings, about 2 cups

1 ripe mango, peeled, diced into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup diced pineapple, 1/2-inch, fresh or unsweetened canned

1 kiwi fruit, peeled, diced into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions (white and 3 inches of green)

1/2 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, 1/4-inch dice (1/4 cup)

2 teaspoons diced jalapeno (1/8-inch dice), seeds and ribs removed

Grated zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or basil

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons pineapple juice or water

1 tablespoon honey

1. In a nonreactive bowl, mix the mango, pineapple, kiwi, scallions, bell pepper, jalapeno, lime zest, ginger and cilantro.

2. In a small bowl, whisk the lime and pineapple juices and the honey. Pour over the fruit mixture; stir to combine.

3. Refrigerate the salsa, covered, for at least 2 hours to meld flavors. The salsa can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

4. Serve with grilled shrimp, chicken, fish or tortilla chips.

- From Food to Live By by Myra Goodman (Workman, 2006)

Per serving: 92 calories, 1 gram protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Fresh Fruit Salad with Lemon Verbena

Makes 6 servings, about 1 cup each

1 1/2 cups hulled and sliced strawberries

1 mango, peeled and cubed (see Note)

1 cup blueberries or blackberries

1 1/2 cups raspberries

2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur, such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh lemon verbena or mint leaves, plus lemon verbena or mint sprigs for garnish

1. In a large bowl, combine the strawberries, mango and blueberries. Just before serving, add the raspberries, liqueur and chopped lemon verbena. Stir gently to combine.

2. Serve in a large bowl or individual glass goblets or bowls. Garnish with lemon verbena leaves or sprigs.

- From Food to Live By by Myra Goodman with Linda Holland and Pamela McKinstry (Workman, 2006)

Note: To peel and cube a mango, cut a thin slice off the top and bottom of the mango so that it can stand on end. Using a paring knife, cut the mango along the pit, top to bottom, with the knife as close to the pit as possible. Repeat on the opposite side. Place each mango slice on a counter, skin side down. With the knife, make a crosshatch of cuts through the mango flesh to make 1/2-inch squares. Take care not to pierce the skin. Turn each slice inside-out to fan mango cubes out from the skin. Use the knife to slice the cubed mango from the skin.

Per serving: 77 calories, 1 gram protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-701-7624 or lkadaba@phillynews.com.