Berlin - Many years ago, when my mother and I were returning from a summer holiday in Pakistan, we were held up at the customs area of Tegel Airport. The security guards eyed us suspiciously and told us to open our demonstratively (and perhaps unnecessarily) large suitcases when they learned where we were returning from. This scene might have seemed absurd to onlookers, this middle-aged lady and her school-age kid the only people out of the queue getting their luggage checked. And frankly, I don’t remember how I felt about that.
What I do remember vividly is what happened next: When the first bag was opened, eight mangoes roughly wrapped in newspaper could be seen strategically placed between clothes and various other travel items. A flummoxed airport worker took a quick step back at the sight, only for my mother to grab one, unwrap it and hold it out innocently to him: “Would you like to try a Pakistani mango?” Everyone burst out laughing and we were let through.
I'm all for mango nationalism
I always think back to this one moment in time, because it reminds me of a particular behaviour I have witnessed time and time again when it comes to people of South Asian origin: We are simply obsessed with mangoes. It’s a cliché, even used by artists from the South Asian diaspora in their work, but it’s very much on point. Mango season is the best season there is, and it always brightens up my summer. But here’s the thing: I don’t just mean any kind. It has got to be the Pakistani variety, in all its juicy, saccharine sweet and floral glory. Mango nationalism is the only nationalism I can get on board with, and once you eat a Pakistani mango, it’ll be very difficult for you to prefer any other.
So much so that we won’t stop at anything to procure the fruit, either by ourselves, as aforementioned, or through other means. It’s worth pointing out here that this is a strictly German problem. In the UK for example, this is less of an issue, with Pakistani mangoes readily available in shops, stalls and on street corners once the season hits. In Berlin, the city I was born and brought up in, getting Pakistani mangoes in the summer always becomes a “thing”, it’s this wild adventure. And the lengths we’ll go to to buy a box (or two, or three) can often turn hilarious.
You need to keep an eye on the various “Pakistanis in Germany” Facebook groups, where a post might pop up out of nowhere announcing an incoming shipment. You might get forwarded a registration link through WhatsApp by a true friend for a one-day mango sale being held in a part of Berlin you’ve never been to before. Or a family member or acquaintance returns from a vacation, much like we did all those years ago, and brings back the perfect gift. Taking a first bite of Pakistani mango each summer is almost Proustian to me and my family – emotional, nostalgic and so exciting.
There are also some Asian shops in Berlin that have them in stock, but because Pakistani mangoes have a very short shelf life, people are increasingly turning to specialised sellers based in Germany with direct access to farms in Pakistan, who make it a point to distribute the goods directly to buyers. When we were in between lockdowns in Berlin last year, and mango season was around the corner, there was a brief worry, a physical pain almost, at the thought of going mango-less. No one I knew was travelling to or coming back from Pakistan.
Luckily, an independent fixer came into my life at that time – I know this sounds dramatic, but that is exactly how I felt – and I was able to buy several boxes off him. That same guy is my “mango guy” now, but he’s also like family. And this year I knew exactly what to do. I contacted him, asking him what the situation was like, with flights to and from Pakistan still relatively limited. The situation was very good, he told me, the gold already in Berlin, waiting to be picked up. “Make yourself happy, and make your loved ones happy,” is how he ended the call. Pakistani mangoes are honey-like, best eaten chilled, and really worth all the effort.