The elusive Pakistani mango

August 10, 2011

The legendary Pakistani Chaunsa mango, arguably the best in the world, landed for the first time in the United States at O’Hare about two weeks ago, but unless you were among the mango chosen few, you’ll have to wait until next year to taste them in Chicago.

None of the initial 2,800 pound shipment made it out to market. Many were eaten at the Inaugural Ceremony of Pakistani Mangoes at the Palmer House Grand Ballroom on July 30th. Some were shipped to politicians from City Hall to the White House.

I checked Madni Mart, a Pakistani grocery in Chicago. Owner Ali Akbar was not in the store, but his brother Muhammad Tariq, just helping out, said he hasn’t seen the Chaunsas. “We’re on Devon. If anybody would have had them we would’ve known about it,” said Tariq, “Everyone’s been anxiously waiting for them. They’re the best in the world - no doubt about it.”

“We might have them next year,” he said, “maybe at the end of June or July. They have a life of a month only.”

Eventually all Pakistani mangoes will land first in Chicago then go to a Sioux City, Iowa electron beam irradiation facility.

Back at the ceremony, a young guest pointed out to me that the host, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, is actually on Twitter - and “the coolest ambassador." Haqqani welcomed Chicago’s Pakistani leaders - CEO’s, doctors, lawyers, engineers - with a mango-centric menu including shrimp skewers with a spicy mango salsa, mango cheesecake, mango lassi, mango kulfi, mango ice cream, and toasted with non-alcoholic mango margaritas and sparkling mango strawberry sangria.

A four-tier mango showpiece cake - draped in green, white, and mango colored fondant, with a towering vine of pastry-chef-made mangoes tumbling artistically off - could have been the wedding cake of this Pakistani-American mango marriage arranged to ease diplomatic tensions.

Previously mango fanatics planned entire vacations to Canada to eat Chaunsas, legal there.

“The most important thing for people to realize (is) that this is an unprecedented situation,” said Asad Hayauddin, Consul for Trade and Commerce at the Consulate General of Pakistan in Chicago to WBEZ’s own Odette Yousef.

Yousef also reported, “Hayauddin began working closely with US and Pakistani officials three years ago to figure out how to satisfy regulations set by the US Department of Agriculture that had long kept the fruits from reaching the US market. The USDA forbade the import of mangoes for fear that the fruit would carry pests that might harm US crops.”

“This is the first time in the history of US-Pakistan commercial or trade relations that perishable commodities are coming in,” said Hayauddin, “It was a massive team effort from the top political (level) down, to the diplomatic representatives, to the technical people on the ground.”

I asked Madni Mart's Tariq how he eats mangoes. “The traditional way in Pakistan. We put them in cold water until they’re chilled, then peel, cut them into slices or small cubes, and eat with a fork,” he said.

He expects the Chaunsas will sell for $30 to $40 a dozen, the going rate for Indian Alphonso mangoes, which made their big debut in 2007, also widely considered the best, not surprisingly by Indians.

“As the biggest importer of mangoes in the world (with $250 million in mango imports) America was a ripe market for the Pakistani mango, Ambassador Haqqani said to the Tribune’s Monica Eng.

While you no longer need to try to smuggle Chaunsas into this country, I did smuggle a few out of the ceremony. They’ve been ripening in my kitchen for over a week now - some might say over ripening. I left them out on the counter until I could smell perfume from their stem end. The first one I ate by simply biting into it like an apple, sucking the escaping juices, peeling back the skin with my teeth, until I reached the soft golden flesh. It was almost too sweet, with a texture like custard, and held a faint yet deep, musky aroma. There was no tartness or citrus notes as found in some other mangoes.

There are over 1,000 different mangoes around the world. Mango aficionados may argue the merits of Chaunsas versus Alphonsos and them some, but it’s like, in a way, comparing apple to oranges.