After more than 15 years of waiting, Thailand has officially started exporting pomelos to the United States. The exciting change in trade policy marks the eighth fresh fruit that the Southeast Asian nation now sends to the United States, and the second time since 2006 that the list of eligible fruits has changed. In early July, the Sawasdee DC Festival, marking the 190th anniversary of Thai-U.S. relations, also placed a spotlight on the new development.
“We have pomelo coming in from—straight from Thailand! We have four [varieties] of pomelo. It looks like grapefruit but it’s juicier and sweeter,” said Chuliepote Isarankura, the Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Royal Thai Embassy, in an interview with FOX 5 DC. The four varieties in question are Thong Dee, Khao Namphueng, Khao Tang Kwa, and Khao Yai, all of which were present at the anniversary event.
Pomelos grow in Southeast Asia and are a subcategory of citrus fruits. When they are combined with oranges, which are themselves a combination of pomelos and mandarins, they create grapefruits. Though their appearance is reminiscent of their more bitter offspring, pomelos are nearly twice as large as grapefruits due to their thicker rinds and have a reputation for being significantly sweeter overall.
While pomelo is native to much of Southeast Asia, it is not new to the United States. Growers in California, Florida, Oregon, and Washington have settled well into domestic and international markets over the years. However, due to natural disasters and plant diseases, American producers have seen a sharp drop in the volume of pomelos and grapefruits more generally that they can produce, thus driving up their prices. As the first shipment of Thai pomelos to the United States weighed in at 864 kilograms (about 1,905 pounds), even if production shortages aren’t fully offset, shoppers will be pleased by the increase in options.
Of Thailand’s 30-plus pomelo breeds, three are especially likely to be popular in the American market: the Siamese Ruby (Tub Tim Siam), the White Cucumber (Khao Tang Kwa), and Thong Dee. With pomelo season in Thailand lasting from approximately March to April and August to November, and the US season ranging from November to June, pomelo options are likely to be available year-round.
Thailand and Vietnam are some of the most prevalent producers and exporters of pomelos, with Thailand exporting to more than 30 countries and Vietnam steadily growing its export markets. China’s immense production is primarily used to satisfy domestic demand, but they, too, import pomelos from their southern neighbors. In fact, China’s most prevalent source of fruit is Thailand, and one of the largest for pomelos specifically. The United States, in comparison, is a new and relatively average market, but the potential for a cultural exchange is heightened due to the country’s overall lack of familiarity with and growing curiosity about pomelos.
Vietnam was given the green light to begin exporting pomelos to the United States back in October of last year. In the same vein as this latest adjustment with Thailand, the United States allowing for imports to come from Vietnam both strengthens existing ties and mitigates the gap between supply and demand for fruits in the US market. As it stands, it is unlikely for either the Vietnamese pomelos or Thai pomelos to have a negative impact on US growers—instead, wholesalers of pomelos are liable to benefit from the broadening range of pomelo options to sell.
Whether this trend of increasing fresh fruit imports from Southeast Asian nations will continue in the coming years remains to be seen. In the meantime, if you come across a Thai pomelo in your local grocery store, give it a try!
Sarah Pratt is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she is focusing on Comparative & Regional Studies and Human Security & Humanitarian Affairs.