We all have our vices.
I can live without coffee, tea is just fine. Dare I say I could live without chocolate? Okay, I won’t go there just yet. But the mangosteen… The sweetest and most velvety of fruits I cannot live without. I decided this in 2005 when I had my first, and what I thought until recently, last taste.
Many have never heard of a mangosteen. The fruit looks like a freakishly juicy garlic in a tough, thick plum exterior. The taste is unbelievable. The flavor is a cross between tangerine, mango and papaya with a texture that is soft butter. It is the caviar of the fruit world. And you will pay near-caviar prices if you can find it outside the tropics.
I met the mangosteen in Shanghai, late August, 2005. I had just turned off Nanjing Road, a main shopping district, “booya-ing” my way through the crowd. (I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I was told “bu” was a form of “no” and “boo-ya” was essentially, “no thank you” or “I don’t want.” As men approached offering to escort me to factories to purchase designer bags and DVDs, I simply droned a continuous stream of “booya” from my lips. I still think it sounds like I was having a plethora of “ah-ha” moments: Ah, booya! That’s what I thought.)
I turned off the main road and saw a man carrying a large basket of what I thought were plums over his shoulders. As he approached, I readied my booya when I noticed these were not plums at all. The fruit had cute little green caps and appeared to be garlic inside. For an unknown reason, I decided to buy the strange fruit. A few steps away I broke it open, frozen as this new sweetness filtered through my senses. I returned to where I had found the fruit vendor, looking to buy more, but he was gone. I returned the next day, and every day until I left, hoping he would return. I searched fruit markets and soon decided it must have all been an illusion. I would never find this fruit again. It did not exist.
Over breakfast one day I discussed this hallucination to some locals. Ah, the mangosteen, they knowingly smiled. But that was all. It was hard to find, I was lucky to find one. I left China with only a hint at this fruit never to find it again. I was lucky to have the name.
When I returned to New York, I scoured the internet seeking outlets for the fruit in my area. Surely, I thought, with such a large local Chinese population I could once again find this fruit smuggled through the lines. I printed a picture of the mangosteen and took to Chinatown, both Manhattan and Queens, on foot at different times of the year, hoping I could turn up the slightest lead or acknowledgment. Nothing. I thought surely I had lost this taste of paradise, only to be had should I return to Asia.
A recent trip to the Queens Chinatown for wonton wrappers turned into an unexpected surprise.
There is a supermarket in this neighborhood I visit that can leave me wandering aisles for hours. I can purchase anything from a wok to fish balls, to full, uncut oxtails to every imaginable ginger candy. It is a day’s excursion into the supermarket. My favorite aisle is the produce section. With a fresh seaweed bar, young ginger, purple potatoes, and more Asian pears than I knew existed, I can always find something fun. I picked up my wonton wrappers, some kimchee, hot bean sauce and rounded into the produce aisle.
I saw them right away. I cannot believe it! I said to my friend, A. There they were, tucked into a corner, 5 nylon sacks, each containing a few purplish orbs. I had found the mangosteen without actually seeking it out. (Although we could argue that all my trips into Chinatown are forever in search of the mangosteen.)
Most often, the best produce at this supermarket is fought over violently. I have been in the middle of a ruckus of senior citizens literally shoving me over for kumquats. Where were the crowds for the mangosteen? Were these people crazy to pass this sacred fruit? As I grabbed my bag, holding it close to my chest expecting a tackle, I noticed the price: $12.99 per pound.
I had to have them. I was an addict awaiting my fix. I waited 3 years for this moment and was not going to let this fruit depart my side.
What is it? A Jewish mango? A asked. Silly man! None for you! I turned wild eyed and raced to checkout.
Just over 2 pounds of my fruit came to $30 for 9 fruit, or $3 per fruit. Priced over a 3 year wait, I paid mere pennies per day for my future moments of joy. What a steal!
Sadly, I just finished my last mangosteen. Already shaking for more, I’m already contemplating going back to buy the remaining bags. Can I really wait another 3 years?
I’ll also mention I understand the huge burden on the environment when we chose imported fruits over local. Anyone who reads this blog regularly should know my stand in the debate. I do not purchase imported fruits on a regular basis, and as I said, this one mangosteen is a vice.