Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Dana Edmunds
It’s 6 a.m. on the first Friday in February, and already a queue is forming outside the gates of Punahou School—a full five hours before those gates will open. The early-morning enthusiasm is easy to explain: It’s the weekend of the annual Punahou Carnival, one of Honolulu’s biggest events. But these people are not in line to snag the front seat of the roller coaster or get first dibs at the white elephant sale. They are lining up for a crack at the jams-and-jellies booth, home to the coveted Carnival Mango Chutney.
Carnival Mango Chutney—distinguished by its bold dose of Hawaiian chili—is an unfailing hit, and every year ten thousand or so jars sell out within a few hours. Those thousands of jars have their genesis in the previous May, when classes end and mango season begins. That’s when the soon-to-be junior class starts the process of picking, peeling, chopping, cooking and jarring. By summer’s end the students have worked through about five thousand pounds of mangoes, all of which are donated, mostly by backyard growers.
“It’s the same recipe they’ve used year after year. It’s all about tradition,” says Lori Popovich, a Punahou parent who helped oversee the chutney production in 2011. Last summer saw a poor mango season due to the heavy rains that fell the previous winter, and donations were harder to come by. “We literally just drove through neighborhoods looking for trees and knocking on doors,” Popovich recalls.
Fortunately many yards in Honolulu’s older neighborhoods —Niu Valley, Kaimuki, Palama—still have mango trees. Some of those trees are smaller and pruned. Others are enormous, with sprawling, dense canopies of slender, slouching, dark green leaves. They’re easiest to spot during mango season, when fruit weighs down their branches, dangling singly or in clusters.
Mango trees are not just an integral part of Hawai‘i’s physical landscape, though—they’re integral to Hawai‘i’s culture, too. The fruit inspires art, song and cuisine. We grow it, pick it, share it and savor it. And we integrate the trees into our lives. For lost drivers, mango trees provide landmarks that digital apps have yet to map. For venerated waterman George Downing, flowering trees are a prognosticator of winter waves. And for Punahou students, mangoes prove that money can, in fact, grow on trees.
“I want you to drop, baby, drop, baby, drop ’cause I’m hungry!” To borrow a phrase from the Mana‘o Company tune (which endures tirelessly on Island playlists), love is like a mango—and every year mango lovers can’t wait for the start of mango season, which typically runs from May to September. Then there will be mango pie, mango bread, mango juice, mango dressing, mango salsa, mango jam, pickled mango … The list of mango-infused culinary delights goes on and on.
In the midst of the season, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider in Waikiki hosts Mangoes at the Moana, a festival designed to highlight the unique characteristics of dozens of the mango varieties grown in Hawai‘i. In the festival’s Chefs’ Throwdown, top Island cooks use their knowledge of the different varieties to pit their best mango interpretations against each other. At last year’s festival the blue ribbon was awarded to The Kahala Hotel’s team for this lineup: curry mango sausage with green mango relish in a little potato bun; mango tostada with mango aioli, tender beef brisket and mango relish; Chinese roasted duck with fresh mango, green onions and mango sauce served in a crêpe; and mango cannelloni with lychee sorbet and a cookie twill.
Different varieties of mangoes lend differing flavors and textures to be sure, but so too does their degree of ripeness. “We asked for very green mangoes, half-ripe mangoes, ripe mangoes and very ripe mangoes,” says Kahala head chef Wayne Hirabayashi. For the sausage, his team used half-ripe Hadens and Rapozas (“It had to give good mango flavor and hold up to the cooking of the sausage”). For the relish, a very green Haden (“It needed the acidity and crunch”). Very ripe and fleshy Hadens and Rapozas were chosen to make the mango aioli and the sweet purée for the cannelloni filling. Even mango seeds were incorporated. “We filled the duck cavities with them thinking that they would add mango flavor and some of the acid from the mango would help make the duck tender,” Hirabayashi explains. Very ripe Hadens sweetened the duck’s honey glaze, and half-ripe Rapozas were used for the garnish.
Of course not all mango recipes call for such complexity. Amateur chefs also had a chance to show off home-grown recipes, like mango cream cheese ice cream in a graham cracker cream puff, Kent Thompson’s marvelous concoction, which won first place in the baked dessert category. Asked what kind of mangoes are best for his recipe, Thompson replied, without missing a beat, “Free ones!”
In the end, the simplest, most popular way to eat mango is in its purest form: peeled and sliced, preferably cold. Mark Suiso hosts a mango tasting and a “best in show” contest each year as part of the Moana festival. Suiso, owner of Mäkaha Mangoes, has been called “Hawai‘i’s Johnny Mangoseed.” At the 2011 event he peeled hundreds of mangoes (his record time for peeling a single mango is a nimble ten seconds) to introduce people to the distinct qualities of at least a dozen different varieties.
Thirty entries from three islands were in contention to win the prize of ultimate mango. Points were awarded to each fruit for specific criteria. Flavor: Does the mango have a front and a finish as well as a distinct mango taste? Texture: Is it low-fiber, firm yet juicy? Skin color: Is it colorful and attractive? Aroma: Is it fragrant and appealing? Yield: How great is the proportion of flesh to seed?
“Where I’m trying to take mangoes is where people have taken wine,” Suiso says. In his long, narrow yard, he tends seventy trees that represent numerous mango varieties. Some he planted, some he grafted, others are left from his father’s experiments on the family property more than fifty years ago, around the time Suiso was born.
Suiso’s expertise is impressive, and he puts it to practical use: If you want mangoes in May, he’ll tell you, grow Rosigold. If you want mangoes at Thanksgiving, grow Keitt. If you want guaranteed fruit in July and August, plant Mapulehu (“I can set my watch by it,” he says). When a tree is young, water it heavily. Prune it early and you’ll get a bush. “This only happens by active management,” he instructs. “It doesn’t happen by itself.”
After all of the thirty entries at the 2011 festival had been sampled, the winning mango turned out to be an Excel from Rocky Rogers’ farm in Wai‘anae. “The best way to describe it,” Suiso concludes, “is that it’s a sweet, sweet fruit, and the flavor just explodes in your mouth when you bite into it.” Suiso will be the first to tell you, though, that judging a mango is just as subjective as judging wine—and lots of people in the Islands carry powerful memories from childhood that color how they feel about mango varieties, award-winners be damned. “A lot of this is really personal,” he says. “It’s just what people have grown up with and learned to like. People ate mangoes a certain way, and they ate certain mangoes.”
Chef Hirabayashi concurs. “Most of us local boys grew up eating either Pirie, Haden or Common,” he says. He polled his chefs Dan, Greg and Michael about their preferred ways to enjoy mango, and “we all came up with three basic ways: green with shoyu and vinegar, green pickled mango [and] ice-cold ripe mango.” Hirabayashi’s personal favorites are Haden and then Pirie. “That’s what we had in our yard as well as the neighbors’, and Haden trees made the best tree-houses. Big trunks and branches … but a lot of leaves to rake up!”