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A sweet deal brings India's mangoes to U.S.

With America lifting an import ban, Indians aim to conquer the market.

June 17, 2007|Laurie Goering | Chicago Tribune

NEW DELHI — It's mango season in India, and the vendor pushcarts are overflowing with colorful mounds of juicy and wildly diverse varieties of the "king of fruit."

There's the Alphonso, a small yellow mango that is among the nation's sweetest, and the Khattu, which means sour, with its reddish-tinged skin. The Langra, a roundish green variety with fragrant pale yellow flesh, is a Delhi favorite, but the Hamam, a big yellow fruit, and the Kesar, smallish and green-tinged, have their devotees as well. And those are just a few of the May-June varieties; by September, when the summer mango season ends, India's groves of mango trees will have offered up more than 1,000 varieties.

"Indians have sweet tastes and when the mangoes come to market, we are all eating them, every day," said A.K. Singh, a mango expert at New Delhi's Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Of the 12 million metric tons of fruit the country produces each year -- nearly 60% of the world's total -- virtually all gets eaten at home.

The good news for Americans is that a share of the other 1% of India's production is hitting U.S. store shelves, as part of a new trade agreement that lifts an 18-year ban on Indian mango imports. But they're pricy: $35 to $40 for a box of 12.

Indian mango shipments began arriving in U.S. markets in late April, after the two countries reached a trade deal allowing the entry of fruit treated with low levels of radiation to kill the mango seed weevil, a pest that could threaten U.S. melon crops.

India, at the same time, agreed to begin importing one of America's own icons -- the Harley-Davidson motorcycle -- after easing tight emissions standards that had barred the bike.

The mango deal was reportedly pushed not only by officials eager to boost U.S.-India trade -- which has been growing at more than 25% a year -- but by U.S. diplomats who had spent time in India and missed their favorite summer treat.

"We hope [this] is going to help generate a whole bunch of goodwill and lead to a deeper trade relationship," said Ron Somers, president of the United States-India Business Council. The two countries hope to boost trade from a current $30 billion a year to $60 billion within two years.

Indian mango experts, encouraged by the trade opening, are already working on new varieties for the U.S. market. Americans, accustomed to shiny red-tinged Latin American varieties, are sometime reluctant to buy duller-looking yellow and green mangoes. So scientists hope to find redder Indian species, or improve the red tint of existing ones, to broaden their appeal in the U.S.

Singh, a fruit scientist in Delhi, predicts the Rakma mango, a yellow and slightly pink mango from Gujarat that is gaining popularity in India, could soon surpass the prized yellow Alphonso in sales overseas.

If Americans can be persuaded to try Indian mangoes, he said, he's confident they won't want anything else in their milkshakes, fruit salads or Asian fusion recipes.

"If you eat these, you'll forget the mangoes from Mexico," he promised.

Tribune staff writer Kathryn Masterson contributed to this story from Chicago.

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