Alphonso, King of Mangoes, Visits Toronto
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Alphonso, King of Mangoes, Visits Toronto

Azim Popat opens a new case of Alphonso mangoes at Kohinoor Foods.

Ah, spring. That wonderful time of year when tulips bloom, lawns turn green, and Queen West becomes awash with deep V-neck shirts. And, if you’re a fan of all things delicious, a selection of tasty golden fruits is available for a short time on Gerrard Street East.
The mango is often referred to as the “king of fruits,” and one type is considered by many to be head-and-shoulders above all others: the golden-skinned Alphonso, grown mostly in the coastal regions around Mumbai and southern India and in season for only three months a year.

Incredibly popular in Mumbai, where Alphonsoes are ubiquitous in market stalls and carts at this time of year, the demand for these mangoes came to Canada with Indian expatriates, according to Azim Popat, owner of Kohinoor Foods, located just west of Coxwell Avenue in the Gerrard India Bazaar. When Popat’s brother-in-law first opened the store more than 20 years ago, the demand among Toronto’s growing South Asian community made importing the mangoes a logical and lucrative business choice.
Popat says the majority of his mango-buying clientele is still South Asian, although he has noticed more and more people of other ethnic backgrounds coming to the store to buy them in recent years. “Mostly it’s the Indians who are familiar with that mango,” he says. “But now I’ve seen a trend where a lot of Canadians have found out about it and are starting to buy them as well.” The Alphonso’s reputation has also spread on foodie websites such as Chowhound, where a new discussion thread devoted to the variety pops up almost every year.
The Alphonso’s increasing popularity is, of course, good for business in the India Bazaar. A case of 12 (the only way they are sold) costs around $23, and Popat estimates he sells about 1,500 cases a year. However, an especially cold winter and heavy rains have caused the 2011 crop to shrink by an estimated 30 to 80 per cent, and the drop has affected imports. Popat says the season has started later and will be shorter in 2011, ending in a couple of weeks. He is receiving fewer cases per shipment as well this year, meaning the mangoes tend to sell out in a day or two.
So what makes the much-coveted Alphonso different from the big, reddish Tommy Atkins variety commonly found in Canadian supermarkets? Just about everything, says Suresh Doss, founder of the online food and wine publication Spotlight Toronto. “It just comes down to the Alphonso’s unique flavour and texture profile,” he says. “And you can smell these mangoes moreso than any other mango. You can smell them as soon as you’re anywhere near a box.”

The Ataulfo (left) and Alphonso (right). Deliciousness not pictured.

Alphonso mangoes are yellow with a somewhat creamy-feeling skin and saffron-coloured flesh. They are smaller and rounder than the oblong Mexican Ataulfo variety, which is also currently in season and costs about half the price of its Indian cousin. Recognizing the differences between mangoes is important, says Doss, especially if one is looking for Alphonso mangoes outside the India Bazaar. He says some stores commit “mango fraud” by passing off other mangoes as Alphonsoes, charging the more expensive price to unsuspecting customers.
Which is not to say other mangoes aren’t tasty in their own right. In fact, some connoisseurs argue the sweeter Pakistani Chaunsa variety, available in June, is superior to the Alphonso. But for Doss, and the many foodies who go through case after case of the fruit every spring, the Alphonso is beyond unbeatable. Having spent much of his childhood in Sri Lanka, for Doss the Alphonso is a delicious reminder of his younger years. “It’s a trip down memory lane for me,” he says. “And you can’t get them all year round, so you may as well eat as much as you can while they’re here.”
Photos by Brendan Ross/Torontoist.