Indian mangoes

The arrival of succulent Alphonso mangoes from India to the UK in April and May has become one of the seasonal treats I look forward to each year. At this time of year, Asian food shops from Tooting to Wembley are piled high with boxes of Alphonso mangoes, catering for the high demand for this most luscious of fruits. The news, therefore, that the EU is banning imports of mangoes from India from May 2014 (a decision which will apparently be reviewed by the end of 2015), came both as a surprise and a shock. The ban has been imposed for agricultural reasons, with the discovery of high level of fruit flies in Indian mangoes triggering it. The implications of the ban go far beyond whether or not I get to enjoy my favourite fruit; there will be major economic repercussions in both India and the UK.
Mr Ashok Chowdry, who in 1992 founded Fruity Fresh, importers, wholesalers and distributors of exotic fruit and vegetables, has seen the rise of Indian mango imports to the UK grow substantially. He first began importing Indian mangoes to the UK in 1978 and has witnessed a huge change in awareness of the fruit. “If you think about it when I was importing in 1978, people were not aware of a fruit called mango. They were called ‘queer gear’ not so long ago. But mangoes have come a long way; trade in them has grown to such a volume. They are now a major Indian and Pakistani fruit export.”
Because of its historic links and large Asian community, the UK is a major hub for India and Pakistan’s mango exporting trade. Indeed it has been estimated that in 2012-2013 the export value to India of fresh mango exports to the EU was USD6.8 million, with the UK accounting for over 91% of mango exports to the EU from India. Indian mangoes are enjoyed not just by the Asian community, he points out; “The amount of local people buying mangoes, enjoying them, relishing them is huge.”
The implications of the ban, declares Mr Chowdry, “are serious.” As he talks, I can hear the frustration in his voice. “It’s going to put a lot of people out of business. Airlines will go out of business. I myself import something like 20-30 tonnes of mangoes every week. when they fly from Bombay all the airlines are full of mangoes and there are plenty of flights. Growers in India will be ruined. The money they make is by exporting the mangoes, not by growing them for the local market. People prepare all year for this two and a half month business. All the import businesses like ourselves and the small shops we supply will be hit very hard.”
What Mr Chowdry is looking for rather than the abruptly imposed blanket ban is a constructive solution which addresses the fruit fly issue but allows the export mango trade to continue. He cites the example of Indian mango imports to the US, where, in response to American concerns over the fruit fly issue, the mangoes have to be treated with irradiation. “We already take steps for other countries like America and Australia. You know how strict Australian food laws are. What we want are extra procedures to be put in place, so that they become a requirement.” Other countries require vapour heat treatment of Indian mangoes before allowing them to be imported. The timing of the ban, with India’s politicians and civil servants caught up in the throes of a general election, is particularly unfortunate. Without the political will to work out a practical settlement, the ban looks likely to have serious economic consequences for businesses in both India and the UK. “This ban is going to ruin a lot of people,” says Mr Chowdry simply.
In response to the ban, Fruity Fresh have launched a petition to the British government to highlight the issue and its implications.

Fruity Fresh


Owner Harish Bagauty in front of his Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street

Drummond Street, a sleepy side-street just by Euston station, has long had a special place in my affections. When I was little, my father, as a special treat, would bring the family here for a meal at the original Shah restaurant – he still reminisces fondly about The Shah’s onion bhajis. Later on, as a university student,  I came to Drummond Street to eat bargain-priced dosai at Diwana and to shop at Ambala to satisfy my craving for cardamom-fragrant burfi and freshly-cooked, spicy samosas.

The Indian Spice Shop on Drummond Street has long been another favourite food shop of mine, a place at which to stock up with Indian ingredients, from Bengali panch phoran spice mix to Alfonso mangoes.  Stepping inside this shop, the smell of asafoetida hits you, a smell so pungent and tangible that you feel you could almost slice the air and eat it. Living up to its name, this unpretentious shop has always impressed me with the range of spices it stocks. Neatly arranged on its shelves are packets of everything from ajwain seeds to smoked Spanish paprika. For decades Drummond Street and its Indian restaurants and food shops has remained unchanged.  It was with real shock, therefore, that I discovered that the Drummond Street community is under threat from the High Speed 2 railway project.

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Quietly-spoken and courteous, Harish Bagauty, the Indian Spice Shop’s Goanese owner is very worried indeed about what the future holds for Drummond Street. “The thing is, we don’t know the exact plan yet,” he sighs. “It’s a worrying time. What we do know is they will put in a dead end, so we won’t have road access to Euston Station. We don’t know whether there’ll be pedestrian access.  A lot of customers come from the station, buy stuff and go out. If there’s no parking, we’ll have problems with the customers. It will be a nightmare and business will run down. ”

Harish is proud of the fact that his shop is a Drummond Street institution. “I worked here for the people before me and took over this shop 16 years ago. We are family basically. Me, my brother, my brother in law my sister in law – we all come here 9.30am-9pm.  People know if they come they get everything from vegetables to rice and spices, toiletries, groceries. We get all kinds of customers. People come in and say I’ve been coming here for 40 years. English people go to India, taste Indian food and they love it. Sometimes they ask me for spices even I don’t know! It’s amazing. We try new spices and new blends. We sell a lot of mangoes in season – very popular now. The English people love these mangoes, they wait for the whole year; when mango season come, I see them here every other day.”

As he talks, I can hear the anxiety in Harish’s voice, his sense of frustration. “It is hard to find out information. There were  meetings, but they have no answers for our questions. They say, they don’t know yet, so what’s the point of having meetings? A waste of time.” I can also hear Harish’s sadness at what’s being planned for his local community and his disbelief that a street which means so much to so many people should be destroyed. “There is a lot of opposition to HS2. Camden Council is opposing. People have lived here their whole life –  they’re now in their seventies, eighties, nineties – where are they going to move them? There won’t be the same community where they move them. Same for businesses. They say they’ll move them – it’s not going to work. Drummond St is known by everybody – if only me, then nobody is going to come. I heard that Diwana Bhel Puri and Patak, they were the beginning of this street. These restaurants are very famous – any time when you come, they’re always busy. We run an off-license because of them only –they don’t sell alcohol, so people buy their drink here and take it to them.”

“People are upset – all the flats are going. We’re the local shop, specialising in Indian food. In here, you get personal service, family atmosphere, we know them by name or by face. It’s a friendly atmosphere so people love to come here,  we give them the best service. When they say it’s going, we feel bad, what are we going to do? It takes such a long time to build up this business.”

The Indian Spice Shop, 115-119 Drummond Street,  NW1 2HL, 020 7916 1831

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The Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street