One fateful summer many years ago, I took a bite of my first mangosteen. I was staying with my great-uncle’s family in Shanghai, and in lieu of the “American fruits” I ate at home (apples, grapes, watermelon), we snacked on tropical fruits like lychees, rambutans, and mangosteens. It looked like a cartoon rendering, with its deep purple shell and sakura emoji-stamped bottom, and the fruit inside, which resembles garlic cloves crossed with clementine slices, tasted like vanilla and white peach and, at least to me, a little bit like blood, which somehow made the sweetness sharper.
When I came back to America, I had to find mangosteens. But I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t for several years. Until 2007, mangosteens were banned from the United States over fears that these Southeast Asian imports would carry Asian fruit flies. Since the ban’s lift, all incoming Thai mangosteens (along with Thai lychees, longans, rambutans, pineapples, and regular mangoes) must go through an irradiation treatment, which, some believe, impairs flavor. Non-irradiated mangosteens from Mexico and Puerto Rico are sold at specialty grocers like northern California’s Berkeley Bowl and even at Whole Foods, which first sourced mangosteens for southern California in 2013. Yet timing and geography make it feel nigh impossible to find mangosteens at the grocery store: They’re only in season during rainy Southeast Asian summers, and much of the export trade out of Thailand, Malaysia, and India is consumed by closer neighbors like China. Plus, both the fruit and seedlings are confoundingly fragile, which is why there are so few non-native nurseries.
Last summer, when I saw that Berkeley Bowl stocked a single bucket of mangosteens in their gigantic produce section, I let out a scream. I bought one mangosteen for $8 per pound and savored this long-missed taste of childhood summer. When the weather started heating up in the Bay Area again this year, I offhandedly mentioned to my partner that oh, wouldn’t it be nice to eat a mangosteen again. He chimed in, “You can buy them on Etsy.”
Etsy: home to personalized jewelry, quirky semi-homemade furniture, and bootleg fandom merchandise. Etsy: not the first, second, or 10th place I’d think to look for fresh, super seasonal, rare-to-America fruit. But it’s on Etsy that I’ve reliably found listings of pounds of mangosteens. (There are also a couple of listings on Amazon, but finding fresh fruit on Amazon makes more sense — after all, it’s the company that owns Whole Foods.)
People have gotten used to the idea of buying houseplants on Etsy, but the site’s potential as a food marketplace is largely unrealized. Although one might expect Etsy to ban or at least regulate edible items, there doesn’t appear to be any such restriction in its selling guidelines, and the site’s “Food & Drink” section is full of listings for baked goods, condiments, candy, and coffee beans. Still, there’s something uncanny, yet delightful, about buying rare, once-banned fruit on Etsy.
Searching “mangosteen” on the site and having the real deal pop up alongside mangosteen oils and seeds and dollhouse accessories feels like a secret transgression, because to most, “Etsy” is shorthand for “DIY craft business.” The actual marketplace, however, has long since transcended this homespun vision. The site is still probably the best place to get a custom cutting board or bandana for your dog, but it’s by design a marketplace for specialists. And if rare fruit is your specialty, sure, why not use Etsy to reach your audience?
For mangosteen, the two most popular Etsy listings are from GreatPlentifulShopCA, based in Garden Grove, California, and FreshFloridaFruit, based in Homestead, Florida. (Etsy isn’t the sole source of income for either, and GreatPlentifulShopCA even has its own e-commerce site selling a baffling array of merchandise.) Both shops’ prices change with the seasons — as of the time I’m writing, GreatPlentifulShopCA lists a 2.5 pound shipment for $60 plus $20 shipping, and FreshFloridaFruit’s price has jumped to $48 for a 2 pound shipment with free shipping.
On June 14, I purchased two orders of mangosteens from Etsy, one each from GreatPlentifulShopCA and FreshFloridaFruit. Both orders arrived earlier than their estimated delivery dates, which at the time of the purchase were a range of days the following week. On June 17, I received my first batch of Etsy fruit — FreshFloridaFruit’s shipment arrived in a USPS box, wrapped in a mesh bag and replete with a lukewarm cold pack. I opened it to find 11 intact mangosteens, each fitting easily in my palm with diameters of around 2 inches. Expecting the worst, I cut one open. Then another. Over the course of the next few days, all 11 mangosteens opened up to perfect condition. I was riding high in mangosteen-aided bliss.
On June 20, the shipment from GreatPlentifulShopCA arrived in a mailing pack. This time, the mangosteens were stored in another plastic bag labeled with a sticker that asked the receiver to cut the plastic and let the fruit air out to dispel odors accumulated during shipping. These fruit were noticeably larger, with 3-inch diameters. A few of the fruit had dents. Nevertheless, with newly high expectations, my partner cut one open, and then the rest. Every single fruit was discolored, either by a purple-pink stain or, more troublingly, with sallow stains. Even if the discoloration didn’t extend to the entire fruit, the white pieces of fruit tasted noticeably more sour and bitter than the FreshFloridaFruit shipment.
When I reached out to GreatPlentifulShopCA about the bad batch of mangosteens, I received prompt customer service. I shared photos of the disappointing produce with a representative, and we negotiated a new shipment for the following week. I also asked about the origins of the fruit and was surprised to hear that, at least according to GreatPlentifulShopCA, most of the Etsy sellers import their mangosteens from the same country; it was more likely the timing of the shipments that caused the variety in my orders. This summer, the mangosteens on Etsy come from Thailand, which the customer service rep claimed were “the best,” a claim that I had a chance to judge.
A few days before my first Etsy mangosteens arrived, I went to Berkeley Bowl and hunted down their single seasonal mangosteen basket. I had to make do with the three that were left. These mangosteens were once again priced at around $8 per pound and were notably marked as a non-irradiated import from Mexico. They were about as small as the ones I received from FreshFloridaFruit, but two of those Berkeley Bowl fruit were completely rotted inside, leaving nothing but a dark purple goop.
In the grocery store, the onus is on the buyer to choose carefully, and if you’re literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, so be it. On Etsy, fruit purveyors are choosing fruit for you, like a specialty subscription box. (FreshFloridaFruit actually does sell a tropical fruit sampler box.) But unlike other food or wine specialty services, like gift basket retailers Harry and David, Etsy offers fruit that’s not available at just any high-end grocery store, and a shopping experience shaped by a robust review ecosystem.
Etsy’s perception as a small marketplace works to a buyer’s advantage: There just aren’t as many people buying fruit there, and unlike Amazon or other sites, the reviews are actually helpful, complete with pictures and breakdowns written by humans and not, say, bots. Sellers, too, benefit from the transparent review system, and the fact that the fruit-shopping Etsy audience is already willing to pay a premium for a specialty product. That willingness to pay a bit more for something that’s a little off the beaten path is what continues to draw buyers to Etsy, which leveraged that nicheness for a $1.8 billion valuation in 2015 and almost $4 billion in overall merchandise sales in 2018. By virtue of shopping on Etsy, of all places, buyers announce not just their interest, but the intensity of their interest, and sellers are more willing to field complaints until, at last, the perfect fruit arrives at their customers’ homes.
The business of fresh, extremely perishable fruit is hit or miss, no matter where you’re buying your haul. Clearly, I’m not alone in feeling the call of a particular taste across time and space and Food and Drug Administration rules: When I pored through the Etsy reviews, I mostly felt lucky that I ever encountered mangosteens, or passion fruit, or guava in the flesh at all. Etsy reviewers pepper their comments with anecdotes about faraway homelands and childhoods; cravings from a vacation decades ago that have finally been sated; and tales of hunting for their desired tropical fruit across stores and states, only to find that the internet had the answer all along.
Lilian Min is a writer who lives in California. Juliette Toma is a Los Angeles-based illustrator.