The Harumanis mango does not have the tantalising looks of its peers. Thailand's prized export Nam Dok Mai or waterlily has translucent golden skin and the elegant shape of a lotus petal; India's Alphonso has a plump top and curved nose with a blush of pink over yellow; Mexico's Tommy Atkin ripens to nectar red.
At the fruit stalls, other local mango varieties, such as the common Sala with its deep green skin and long tapered shape, overshadow the pale green kidney-shaped Harumanis, often blemished with latex burns and dark spots due to poor handling during harvesting and fruit-wrapping.
But the Harumanis' unrivalled flavour and aroma are wooing Japanese fresh fruit importers.
Last week, representatives of the importers sampled Harumanis at Ladang Bukit Bintang at Sungai Batu Pahat in Perlis, and the mango connoisseurs gave the thumbs-up for aroma, flavour, texture and sweetness, which recorded a higher reading than other mango cultivars.
Their verdict is significant: Harumanis will open the gates to the marketing of Malaysian fresh fruits in Japan next year.
Japan's ambassador to Malaysia, Masahiko Horie, was besotted after his first taste of Harumanis and proposed a gourmet sushi of Perlis' creamy glutinous rice wrapped with thinly sliced Harumanis to be sold in Tokyo.
Horie says the Harumanis has many plus points for the tropical fruit market in Japan, largely due to its superior aroma and flavour, succulent and non-fibrous flesh and sweetness. But consumers will have to be educated on the mature green fruit. "The general perception over there is that a ripe mango has to have yellow skin. Green means unripe and therefore not sweet."
Horie stresses that the market is particular on the physical presentation of the fruit. "The skin must not be flawed by spots or latex burn. While it may be natural, the general perception is that the fruit has gone bad."
Tropical fruit is a growing market in Japan. Total mango imports to Japan last year were 11,000 tonnes, with the largest exporter being Mexico, followed by Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan.
Before Malaysia can join these players, Harumanis must first pass the stringent import protocols set by Japan; among other things eliminating fruit fly larvae by standard vapour heat treatment (VHT).
"We are going for the premium quality," says Abdul Razak Shafiai, director of the
Perlis Agriculture Department. Otherwise it will not be cost-efficient. The entire production process has to be improved."
Compared with other mango varieties, Harumanis is a temperamental fruit. It can only be cultivated in Perlis and Kubang Pasu, a northern district in Kedah, because it needs a four-month-long dry season of at least 40 degrees Celsius to flower and fruit. Rain, even drizzles, during this crucial period will spoil the yield.
After the fruit is set, it needs to be wrapped in waterproof paper.
"The skin can't withstand rain, but if we use perforated plastic bags, the fruit will sweat and rot," says Razak.
Precisely eight weeks after wrapping, the fruits must be manually harvested, washed to rinse off residues, treated in hot water for five minutes to eliminate fruit fly and seed weevil larvae, and then individually wrapped again before being placed in a ripening chamber for three days.
It is a labour-intensive process and there are no shortcuts.
With Japan showing strong interest in Harumanis, Perlis is hoping to increase its annual yield, which currently stands at 350 tonnes for local consumption.
The bigger challenge, however, lies in persuading local farmers to apply good agricultural practices. "It is not easy to change the traditional ways," Razak says.
Harumanis was introduced in 1985, with about 1,300ha cultivated under a special scheme. But after some years, many farmers switched to other commercial crops such as oil palm, rubber and padi.
The Harumanis acreage dwindled to just 65ha tended by 69 farmers, while the State Agriculture Department has 45ha.
One of the pioneers, Shahimi Shaari, 40, says his 22-year investment in Harumanis has been profitable even during the worst seasons. His 0.4ha orchard in Kampung Gial has 80 trees and should yield about 13 tonnes of mangoes this year.
Shahimi admits that Harumanis is more demanding than other crops, but the returns are rewarding. "It does not need replanting and the yield improves with the trees' age," he says.
"Because of its terminal fruiting nature (where the fruit forms at the ends of branches), we only have to prune the branches."
During good seasons, one tree can bear up to 300 fruits. With the high demand for Harumanis, Shahimi says, there is never an oversupply.
The prospect of producing premium quality mangoes for the export market is enticing, and Shahimi is ready to do the necessary for higher volume and value, with guidance from the State Agriculture Department.
"I am proud that it is a fruit from Perlis that will be the first from this country to break into Japan," he says, "so I will do what it takes to produce export quality Harumanis."
New Straits Times, May 19, 2009