Fresh Find: Indian mango crop makes its way to Pittsburgh tomorrow



Ajit Solanki, Associated Press
An Indian worker takes a nap on a truck loaded with mangoes at a fruit market in Ahmadabad, India.
Click photo for larger image.
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The long wait for supple-fleshed and intense-flavored Indian mangoes is going to be over as the "king of Indian mangoes" Alphonso and saffron-skinned "Kesar" mangoes are expected to hit Pittsburgh markets for the first time tomorrow.

"We're struggling to manage the crowd. Besides coming to our shop in person, people are calling the whole day to know when the mangoes are coming," said Nikunj Patel, manager of the Monroeville store of Patel Brothers, an Indian chain, who seemed to be enjoying the thought of lucrative sales in the coming days.

Pittsburghers are going to have a taste of these most-sought-after mangoes from India, the world's largest mango producer, three weeks after the Indian mangoes made their way into the United States.

Indian exporters have had to wait since 1989, when they first sought permission to be able to ship mangoes here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had concerns about pests.

In January 2006, the department allowed importation of fruits treated with low doses of irradiation for killing or sterilizing insects, but it took more than a year to complete the agreements, rule-making and inspections. Final approvals were issued on April 26.

"Working on their DNA, gamma radiation sterilizes mango seed weevil and fruit flies so those cannot reproduce. It, however, is not absorbed by the fruits, which remain safe for human consumption," said Dr. Bhaskar Savani, a dentist who spent the past three years lobbying U.S. officials to allow export. His family grows mangoes in Gujarat, India.

His Savani Farms of Chalfont, Bucks County, brought in 90 boxes of Alphonso and 60 boxes of Kesar mangoes on April 27 in the first legal shipment to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The U.S.-India Business Council on May 1 hosted a mango celebration in Washington, D.C..

Primarily, importers are bringing in only Alphonso, a bright yellow mango with a pink blush to its skin and multiple aromatic overtones, and Kesar, a sweet-tasting golden-colored mango with green overtones.

Mr. Savani said they are also pondering importing other varieties such as Baganpalli, Dashheri, Langra and Chausa if there is demand.

Since the mangoes have to travel half the world, they will be much more costly than those imported from Central and South America.

"While we sell a box of Hayden or Kent varieties at $7.99, a box of a dozen Alphonso or Kesar is going to cost $35 to $40," Mr. Patel said, adding that a popular variety from Haiti, known as Haiti mango, does not cost more than $11.99 a box. A box usually contains 12 fruits.

The importers are shipping mangoes by air to cut delivery time to a day. But Dr. Bhaskar said they plan to experiment with shipping by sea, which will take as long as three weeks, but reduce the price.

Those who know how the mangoes taste are not worried about the price, said staff at Patel Brothers in Monroeville.

"People are turning up for advance booking but we have to refuse them as it is against our policy," said Mr. Patel, who said most customers are Indian and Pakistani.

Chicago-based Raja Foods is also importing Indian Alphonso and Kesar mangoes and working as a distributor for Savani's mangoes.

"We so far have two commercial shipments and are now distributing the mangoes to Patel Brothers and other Indian grocers mainly in New York and New Jersey," said Parixit Patel, manager of Raja Foods.

Nikunj Patel of Patel Brothers in Monroeville, who twice drove back from New York stores "empty- handed," said customers' "starving" demand cannot be met. "They just don't care what the price is, because they know the difference."

Some grocers in Pittsburgh, however, think the price -- $3 or more a piece -- will be an issue.

"I am not sure whether it will be a good business. It's not a city like Washington, D.C.. or New York; people may not want to pay so much here," said Niten Sharma of India Mart, a grocer on Greentree Road.

He said some other local grocers also are yet to decide.

According to the U.S.-India Business Council, India harvests 12 million metric tons each year but accounts for less than 1 percent of the global mango trade. Dozens of different types are grown commercially, everywhere from Australia to Israel to Venezuela.

America's taste for mangoes is growing -- with U.S. demand 99 percent dependent on imports, mostly from Mexico and South America -- at 250,000 metric tons annually, valued at $156 million. By contrast, in 2005-06, India exported 58,000 metric tons of mangoes to neighbors in Asia and to Europe.

The agreement allowing export of mangoes to the United States was a side note to the nuclear treaty signed last year by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is emblematic of a push to deepen two-way trade from $30 billion to $60 billion over the next two years.


Shamim Ashraf is the Post-Gazette's 2007 Alfred Friendly Fellow. He can be reached at sashraf@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.




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