Will Coachella bear fruit for mango farms?

Milli eats mango and sticky rice on stage at the Coachella Music Festival.

The #mangostickyrice trend and a wave of photos showing people devouring the dessert across social media has boosted sales of the yellow tropical fruit served with warm sticky rice. Thai mango growers welcome this trend for two reasons: mangoes are now in season and farmers have struggled to earn a profit since the pandemic began in 2020.

Q: Why is Thai mango now popular?

The iconic Thai delight of mango and sticky rice took centre stage at the world-famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the US over the weekend when Thai teenage artist and government critic Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul ate a big bowl of the dessert onstage and invited her audience to do the same.

Within 24 hours of the public stunt, Twitter recorded nearly 1.4 million tweets and trending hashtags, and food delivery app Line Man reported a sales increase of 3.5 times for the dessert. The delivery app reported the top three provinces ordering the dish were Chiang Mai, Nonthaburi and Bangkok.

Zhao Xinming, chief operating officer and chief product officer of Line Man Wongnai’s On-Demand Services, said the mango sticky rice trend is expected to continue for two months, citing three factors: the popularity of Milli’s performance, the current mango season in Thailand and many restaurants on the platform adding the dish to their menu.

Even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who pressed defamation charges against the artist following her social media complaints about his mismanagement of the pandemic, hopped on the trend and announced the Culture Ministry is working on getting mango sticky rice recognised as a Thai intangible cultural heritage by Unesco. However, the exact national origin of the sweet dish is up for debate.

A vendor sells mango served with glutinous rice at Bang Khae fresh market in Bangkok. (Photo: Arnun Cholmahatrakool)

Q: Why is the trend significant for struggling Thai mango growers?

According to Krungthai Compass research house, Thailand is the largest exporter of mangoes in the world, accounting for 16% of global output. In second and third place are Mexico (12.4%) and the Netherlands (11.4%), respectively.

Among Asean nations, Thailand controls 61.5% of the international market, while Vietnam and Indonesia hover at 19.5% and 8.7%, respectively.

The impressive export statistics mean Thai farmers stand to lose the most when crises such as the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict break out.

“Before Covid hit, we could export the nam dok mai variety overseas starting at 50 baht per kilogramme, while selling it domestically for 25 baht,” said Sayan Bunying, president of the Thai Mango Growers Association.

“Since the pandemic, there have been issues with shipment logistics and increasingly expensive fertiliser, causing our export price to plunge to only 30 baht, while the domestic price is 12.5-15 baht. This is about a 50% loss in a very short time.”

He said the government stepped in to help growers by subsidising mango prices as well as distributing and selling the produce at discounted prices across the country.

Mr Sayan said he welcomes the new trend sparked by the Thai rapper and is glad to see Thais are enjoying the local fruit, especially during the mango season.

“When you see how much Thai mango farmers are struggling, my appreciation and gratitude go out to anyone and any organisation who advocates for people to eat our mangoes. I hope the trend increases consumption and sales overseas too,” he said.

Mr Sayan said Thai mangoes are grown commercially across the country and yield fruit throughout much of the year. By eating the mangoes, consumers are helping farmers and agriculture workers in communities that tend the crops all year round.

Q: What is the outlook of the Thai mango market?

Apinun Suprasurt, vice-president of Krungthai Compass, said the main fruits Thailand exports in both fresh and frozen form are durian (61%), longan (20%), mangosteen (13%) and mango (2.1%).

The primary destination is China, which takes in 83.4% of all Thai fruit, possibly by virtue of a free trade agreement between the two nations.

While mangoes make up a small percentage of overall fruit exports, he said the fruit amounted to 4.8 billion baht in total export value in 2021, a 37.8% increase compared with the previous year.

The Commerce Ministry said last month it is working with Chinese authorities to give priority to Thai fruit when imports are passing through China’s strict Covid-19 inspection protocols.

The ministry expressed an optimistic outlook for fruit exports. It expects a 15% increase in outbound fruit shipments this year and a 13% hike in overall fruit production for the 2022 harvest season to 5.43 million tonnes.

Some 30% of fruit is slated for domestic consumption and the rest for export, said the ministry.

Q: What makes Thai mangoes special to the international palate?

The sweet taste of Thai mango served with warm glutinous rice is a big hit globally and was included on the latest CNN Travel “50 World’s Most Perfect Desserts” list.

This begs the question why the golden, aromatic tropical fruit tastes so good to the international palate.

“Sweet, tropical, juicy — it’s like a big smile. Absolutely divine. Heavenly. Puree it with a bit of tequila and fresh-squeezed lime for the perfect mangorita,” said Kristine Schaan, an American healthcare consultant in Singapore.

Patrick Panzer, an Austrian expatriate working in the manufacturing sector in the outer Bangkok area, recalled the first time he tried Thai mango in a factory canteen.

“Having eaten mangoes in Europe before, I didn’t expect too much from the Thai mango, but was positively surprised by the unique and sweet taste. It definitely is different from other mango varieties,” Mr Panzer said.

“While I like mango sticky rice, I prefer the mango on its own. It’s a shame it is not readily available in Europe as people there are missing out on it.”

Over in Beijing, Xiang Zhifan, who sampled several types of Thai fruit from durian to longan, said what he loves most about Thailand is the food.

“I’m not really a fruit lover, but I love Thai mangoes. I tried them while I was visiting Thailand in 2019. They taste good on their own, but I can’t deny that the sweet sticky rice compliments it well.”