The American Mango Is a Bland Disappointment

The U.S. lifted a long-standing ban on importing Indian mangoes in 2007. So why is it still so hard to find full-flavored fruit?

A Hindu priest inspects a large pile of mangoes in a temple full of baskets of mangoes.
Amit Dave / Reuters

Mangoes inspire passion, particularly in India, which is home to hundreds of varieties of the fruit. They are celebrated in Indian music, poetry, and art; they are mentioned in Hindu and Buddhist religious texts as well as the Kama Sutra; and Indian expats will even pay hundreds of dollars for a single, air-freighted box of their favorite variety. But while the average red-skinned mango in the American grocery store is certainly pretty, it’s disappointingly bland and crunchy. This episode, we embark on a mango quest to discover how a mango should taste, why the American mango lost its flavor, and how it might just get it back. This is a story that involves a dentist from New Jersey, George W. Bush, and some Harley-Davidsons, as well as a full-on mango orgy—so listen in!

Our episode begins with an American student in London. Having tasted the aromatic, creamy flesh of an imported Alphonso mango at the luxury department store Harrods, the journalist Myles Karp resolved to never again settle for the insipid supermarket specimens of his American youth. But Indian mangoes, including the Alphonso, were simply not available in the United States: For years, it was forbidden to bring them into the country for quarantine reasons. To help us understand what we were missing, we called the mango obsessives Sohail Hashmi and Rhitu Chatterjee, who thrilled us with tales of all-day “mango orgies” in the orchards outside Delhi and exquisite dishes that showcase each variety’s unique charms.

As it happens, the American ban on Indian mangoes was lifted in 2007, after a saga that involved a failed mango-smuggling incident, as well as a complicated trade agreement between the United States and India that ended with Bush swapping Harleys for mangoes. But the country has hardly been flooded with delicious Indian mangoes. Why not—and why are the ones we do import from Mexico, Peru, and Brazil such pale imitations of the real thing?

Finally, our mango quest takes us to Florida, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists David Kuhn and Barbara Freeman describe the bottlenecks that led to a single hardy but tasteless variety, the Tommy Atkins, dominating U.S. supermarket shelves. Over the past couple of years, they’ve been hard at work mapping the mango genome in order to breed a better mango for America—and they think they’re close. Meanwhile, down the road at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the horticulturalist Noris Ledesma has accumulated a collection of some 600 varieties from all over the world. With her, we indulged in a mango orgy of our very own, tasting our way across Southeast Asia, from the garlicky notes of the domestic mango’s wild relatives in Borneo to the coconut delights of the Burmese Shwe Hintha. Ledesma is determined to create a new nation of mango maniacs right here in the United States, by breeding the perfect purple mango. Will the American mango ever inspire poetry of its own? Listen in now to find out!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.