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A very special delivery

The luscious Indian mango makes its Southern California debut. Oh, the crowds! Oh, the sticker shock!

June 06, 2007|Shuji Sakai | Special to The Times

IT may be the most highly anticipated produce debut ever: Mangoes from India, banned from importation until the U.S. and India reached a trade agreement last year, have finally hit stores in Southern California.

Why all the excitement?

The mango, in India, is revered for its flavor and texture. "It's luscious, it's satiny, it's smooth and velvety, and has the most elegant mixture of sweet with a little sour that you can possibly hope to find," says Madhur Jaffrey, author of "Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India" and other Indian cookbooks.

Though hundreds of mango varieties are grown in India, only three -- Alphonso, Kesar and Banganpalli -- will be available in the U.S. this season. Alphonsos and Kesars were the first to arrive.

Alphonsos, smallish and golden-yellow, are amazingly sweet and succulent, with floral aromas and a creamy, fiber-free texture. Los Angeles-based produce wholesaler Melissa's received a shipment the first week of May, says Robert S. Schueller, director of public relations for the firm. Although Melissa's distributed them to retailers in Texas, Pennsylvania and New York, L.A. retailers didn't bite, Schueller says, thanks to their high price -- they sell for $35 for a case of 12.

"We're at the peak of mango season," he says. "You can buy a dozen mangos of the Ataulfo variety for less than 10 bucks, so most retailers look at the price and say, 'Oh, it's probably not worth it.' In a market where you can get two mangos for a dollar, and these are costing $4 or $5 apiece, it depends on where your priorities are."

Mexican-grown Ataulfo mangos -- the only fiberless variety besides the Indian ones -- are available nine months of the year, he says.

But the high price doesn't seem to be deterring Indian mango aficionados. Devraj Kerai, owner of Pioneer Cash & Carry, a grocery in Artesia's Little India district, says he wanted to be the first to carry Indian mangoes in the region. He received 110 cases of Kesars (12 per case) on May 11, he says, and he sold out in three hours. (Since then he has received three more shipments of Alphonsos and Kesars, pre-selling them, with a waiting list.)

When I arrived at Pioneer that first day, there was a huge yellow and orange banner that screamed, "Indian Mangoes Now Available," and the scene around the mango display was like a scrum. That's not surprising to anyone who knows Indian culture.

"Mangos are an essential part of every Indian's growing up," says Jaffrey. "Every party for graduations has mangoes, because that's also the time of the mango. The minute someone graduates, mangoes are sent, placed in a bucket of ice (the quickest way to cool a lot of them), and everyone sits around in a celebratory mood.

"At all our weddings, like a Jewish chuppa, we have a canopy, a mandap, that the couple stands under. The canopy is made of mango leaves, the most auspicious of leaves, and you are surrounded by their blessings."

Still, eyes popped when Pioneer customers learned how expensive the mangoes were. A few snapped up cases, quickly ferrying them away. Others took a more cautious approach. One couple bought a single fruit for $3.50 and returned moments later to indulge in just one more. They had eaten the first one behind the store and couldn't resist buying another.

Besides the price issue, mango devotees should consider that all Indian-grown mangoes exported to the U.S. are irradiated. The reason for the long ban was that they can harbor a pest -- the mango seed weevil -- but the weevil is killed with low levels of irradiation. "Irradiation is recognized as a safe and effective way of providing insect quarantine treatment," says Christine Bruhn, an expert on irradiation and director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis, but the procedure remains controversial.

In any case, I didn't let it bother me: I couldn't wait to taste one. The Kesars, a bit larger than the Alphonsos, are still green when ripe, with only a touch of yellowing, if any.

As I peeled the skin down the side of the fruit, a fabulous perfume wafted up: lime blossom, citrus and spice. I filleted the two "cheeks" away from the flat oval pit. The flesh was gorgeous, a beautiful, deep saffron color. ("Kesar" means saffron in Hindi.) I sliced, and tasted.

The flesh was silky and ripe, with a texture almost like tofu. It was amazingly sweet and deeply flavored, with funky tropical notes and a touch of bright lime and a gorgeous finish. Not wanting to miss a bit, I slurped the rest of the fruit over the sink.

Kesars will be available only through late June, and they're not easy to find: The only stores carrying them in Southern California are a number of Indian groceries; meanwhile, Melissa's is selling them online ($55 per case, plus shipping).

Banganpallis, grown in the south of India, are on their way says Pioneer's Kerai; he expects to have them this week.

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