Mangoes, a status symbol for new rich

Mangoes, a status symbol for new rich

Mangoes, a status symbol for new rich

If love of mangoes is universal in India, so is the disagreement over which variety is best.

Inside his tiny office near the entrance of Crawford Market, Arvind Morde is a bit harried. It is mango season, after all. His telephone rings. A client wants to ship a box of mangoes to Germany, a gift for the Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta.

Another caller wants to send a box to Switzerland; still another, to Singapore.

Morde, 66, takes down each order on a small pad, scribbling the names and addresses. For 92 years, his family has sold fruit from the same prime location beneath the stone arches of Crawford Market, and Morde has learned that Indians, wherever they may be, enjoy a good mango, widely known here as the king of fruits.
“It is the only fruit appreciated by everyone,” Morde says with understated simplicity.

India arguably has only two seasons: monsoon season and mango season. Monsoon season replenishes India’s soil. Mango season, more than a few literary types have suggested, helps replenish India's soul.

Mangoes are objects of envy, love and rivalry, as well as a status symbol for India’s new rich. Mangoes have even been tools of diplomacy. The allure is foremost about the taste but also about anticipation and uncertainty: Mango season lasts only about 100 days (traditionally from late March through June), is vulnerable to weather and usually brings some sort of mango crisis, real or imagined.

In Mumbai, India's financial capital, this season's crisis involves the Alphonso, the variety of mango grown along the western Konkan coast. Prices have spiked. Cold weather interfered with the growing season, producing fewer (and smaller) Alphonsos, the sort of shortfall that might ordinarily be eased by importing different mango varieties produced in different mango-producing regions of India.

Except that India's mango economy adheres to forces other than simple supply and demand. In Mumbai, many people insist on eating Alphonsos and might even be offended by the suggestion that any alternative could suffice.

In New Delhi, on the other hand, many residents belittle the Alphonso and favour the varieties grown in northern India. Almost every state has its own mango jingoism; if love of mangoes is nearly universal in India, so is disagreement over which variety is best.

"People are fiercely parochial about mangoes," said Vikram Doctor, a food writer and mango connoisseur who lives in Mumbai.

Devyani Ghosh, who moved a year ago to Mumbai from New Delhi, is still adjusting, mango-wise. Recently, Ms Ghosh, 37, knelt over mangoes stacked on the concrete floor of Crawford Market, picking them off the stack, squeezing them gently, testing their ripeness, pressing them to the tip of her nose, sniffing, never quite satisfied. Finally, the seller carved a slice of succulent, yellow mango. She took a nibble.
"They are good," she admitted, "but not as good as in Delhi."

Beyond parochialism, mangoes also have become yet another totem for the new Indian rich to keep score. Once, the Alphonso and other varieties did not begin appearing in markets until late March or early April.

Now some growers are producing mangoes in February at prices that can approach about Rs 1,700  or around $30, a dozen, compared with about Rs 500 a dozen or less at the height of the season.
“There are different types of eaters,” Morde said. “The early eaters are the nouveaux riches. It is about prestige.”

Selecting right mangoes

Morde's father founded the family fruit business in 1920, when Mumbai was known as Bombay and the British controlled India. Today, Morde handles sales, while his brother, Ram, oversees procurement.  Morde said the family would sell about 10 million rupees, or about $180,000, worth of mangoes this year, many bought by corporate clients, so selecting the right mangoes is paramount.

"It is like buying diamonds," Morde said. "You segregate them, sort them out, as per the quality."

Morde's international business has steadily expanded over the years, partly tracing the arc of the Indian diaspora around the world. India annually produces about 15 million tons of mangoes, roughly 40 per cent of global production.

Between 40 and 60 varieties are sold commercially, according to the Central Institute of Subtropical Horticulture, which serves as a sort of mango research organisation. Some government research institutes keep samples of different mango varieties to protect against extinction.

Mango exporters now do a thriving trade with several Gulf countries, where more than six million Indians are working, and some domestic mango eaters suspect the best mangoes are now shipped out of India for higher prices abroad.

“My suspicion is that the bigger Alphonsos are being exported,” said Doctor, the food writer, noting that the most serious Alphonso eaters will cultivate their own sources in the growing region. And sure enough, several passengers on a recent ferry from the Konkan to Mumbai were carrying boxes of mangoes.

The media watch for this year's mango crop actually began last year. In late December, newspapers carried worried accounts about the impact of Cyclone Thane on mango season in southern India. Mango-related weather articles are fairly common, and often alarmist - Hailstorms kill mango trees! Cold weather kills mangoes!

Mangoes appear in movies, including a 2010 Marathi-language drama titled "Haapus,'!' or "Mango." Mangoes are such a common literary device that the author Rana Dasgupta declared that Indian fiction needed to move away from the "sari-and-mango novels."

Yet the allure and nostalgia of mango season is undeniable. Some Indians living abroad fly home for a visit during mango season. Generations of Indians can still recall their mothers warning that eating too many mangoes can cause outbreaks of pimples. Last week, a Mumbai radio host invited a guru, or spiritual adviser, to field questions. The first: How can a person safely gorge on mangoes without breaking out in pimples?

Eat the mangoes, the guru advised, but make certain to take deep breaths, eat "cooling" foods and drink plenty of water.

Perhaps the only force capable of resisting the Indian mango has been the US government. For decades, Indian mangoes were banned, for one reason or another (Indians suspect trade protectionism). Doctor noted that the US Department of Agriculture allowed Alphonsos to be imported and served when the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, attended a state dinner in Washington with President John F Kennedy. But the Americans insisted that the seeds were later burned.

When India and the United States consummated a landmark civilian nuclear agreement in 2008, one sweetener was an agreement to allow Indian mangoes to be imported, the so-called nukes-for-mangoes provision. Yet imports remain limited, largely because of US requirements on irradiation and other issues.

Which means that Morde cannot brighten the mango season for at least one person: his son. He lives in Massachusetts.

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