Finally, Our Chance To Savor India's Favored Fruit

Soon, Washington can sample sweet Alphonso mangoes.
Soon, Washington can sample sweet Alphonso mangoes. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

This is mango's moment. For the first time, India, the world's largest producer of the world's favorite fruit, has been granted access to the U.S. market. Best of all, it's the particularly coveted Alphonso variety that is on its way to grocers.

And the Washington area's native Indian population can't wait.

"People are phoning all day long, asking when we will have them," says Pankaj Sheth, owner of Patel Brothers, an Indian market in Langley Park. "At home we always eat them. They are the top of the line." Sheth is trying to get Alphonsos in stock but isn't sure when they'll arrive.

The vast majority of mangoes sold in this country are imported from Central and South America. Nearly two decades ago, the Department of Agriculture denied India's initial request to ship mangoes to the United States because of concerns about pests, including weevils. Last week at a "Mango Celebration" hosted by the Washington-based U.S.-India Business Council and attended by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, the Indian mangoes served were the first fruits to be irradiated overseas and approved for importation here.

"This is a significant milestone that paves the way for the future use of irradiation technology to protect against the introduction of plant pests," Johanns said. "India and the United States began talking about shipping mangoes 17 years ago. Irradiating Indian mangoes safeguards American agriculture while providing additional choices for U.S. consumers in today's global marketplace."

Some special-interest groups oppose food irradiation and other uses of nuclear energy. But many experts say it is safe.

"This is positive and beneficial policy that helps the country we're trading with and helps protect U.S. agriculture from pests that hitchhike in," said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. "The scientific and health committees have endorsed irradiation."

Importer and distributor Savani Farms of Chalfont, Pa., is talking to Costco, Giant Food and Super Fresh about carrying the mango. "But this is all in an experimental phase and very new to us," company co-owner Niranjan Savani said last Wednesday. "We expect a shipment within 10 days but can't say yet where they will go or how much they will cost."

The relatively small, tennis ball-size Alphonsos that Savani sent to the Food section as samples last week had thick yellow skins that peeled back easily to reveal saffron-colored flesh. They tasted sweeter than the common Tommy Atkins variety and were less fibrous. The floral fragrance was pronounced, the texture smooth. The luscious flavor was deep and heady. These were mangoes worth waiting for.

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