Red, Gold & Green
Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Dana Edmunds
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!”
A couple of other key mango introductions in Hawai‘i occurred half a century later. In 1885 Joseph Marsden brought several saplings from Jamaica of varieties descended from the West Indies. Of these, the S-shaped Chinese mango, a pale yellow fruit with yellow, fibrous flesh and a sweet but watery flavor, proliferated locally. In 1889 S.M. Damon introduced several Indian varieties, among them the popular Pirie, a small, plump fruit that is fiberless and sweet, with a colorful greenish-yellow and crimson skin. It wasn’t until 1930 that the Haden found its way to Hawai‘i; it originated from a Mulgoba seedling planted by John Haden in Coconut Grove, Florida. The Haden is medium-size, featuring a white-speckled, bright crimson-and-yellow skin wrapped around a hearty fruit with some fiber and a small seed.
From the initial introductions, mango trees in the Islands were grafted and re-grafted, constantly spawning new hybrids that occasionally found greater favor than the more familiar varieties. Looking to diversify the state’s economy, the government also began a quest to develop varieties suited to commercialization and export. One place where living specimens of this experimentation are still found is along a quiet swath of land in Mapulehu, East Moloka‘i.
Relying on astonishing muscle memory—she relates a story about lazy days at the local pool where the kids would take rocks, “fly ’em at the mango tree and eat ’em for lunch with potato chips”—Cindy picks up a small stone and hurls it at the mango, which falls to the ground instantly with a satisfying thump.
She proceeds to peel it and slice it into chunks, serving it with a bowl of shoyu, vinegar, sugar and pepper; when she has hot chilis, she likes to add those, too. As we dip slices into the intense salty-tart-sweet-spicy mixture, we talk with her father about the mango patch.
In 1940 the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association planted three dozen mango varieties in neat, parallel rows in the forty-acre seaside grove. With some 1,500 to 2,000 trees, it was the largest mango orchard in Hawai‘i and home to the Mapulehu mango, also called the Joe Welch (true to standard practice, the name traces back to the tree’s original planter).
“People love this fruit,” Suiso says of the Mapulehu— and the evidence of that abounds. As one fan wrote of the Mapulehu in his web blog, “These mangoes aren’t stringy, they’re a deep orange, not that yellowish hue like most mangoes. They’re juicy to the max, the flesh almost melting in your mouth. And when refrigerated, they’re the most refreshing, healthiest snack you could ever imagine.”
The Mapulehu is one of a second generation of Island mangoes—reportedly a Haden-Pirie hybrid—that has gained traction locally. A 1993 report from the University of Hawai‘i’s Department of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources even called the Haden and Pirie “obsolete,” citing more favorable cultivars of better quality and productivity.
The HSPA stopped maintaining the trees in the mango patch in 1983, and today those trees are upward of one hundred feet tall, as tall as mango trees get. They still bear fruit —it’s just challenging to pick it.
When the HSPA took leave, Larry Helm, Junior Rawlins and Kalele Logan took over. They built old-time wagons inspired by John Wayne movies, brought in their horses and, in 1984, established the Moloka‘i Wagon Ride.
“We just wanted to be Hawaiians,” Rawlins said, describing the tour’s modus operandi. The horse-drawn wagons carried about thirty guests a day up to ‘Ili‘ili‘opae Heiau, then back down through the mango patch to a lu‘au on the beach. In the course of the journey, they shared history, played guitar, sang songs, danced and ate fresh-caught fish. “It took off like wildfire,” says Rawlins. Helm made T-shirts that proclaimed, “I got mangoed on Moloka‘i,” and with the help of their families, the trio made and sold thousands of jars of mango chutney each summer. Visitor Tad Suckling wrote of his experience at the mango patch, “[When] I traveled down the old rutted road with the gigantic intertwined and overgrown mango trees surrounding me, with ripened mangoes dropping like sweet bombs on our car top, making our way to the luau, I was almost beside myself with magical delight.” Suckling even wrote a song about it, “Molokai Slide,” which went on to top the music charts and win Nä Hoku awards for song of the year and single of the year.
As it turns out, Suckling also wrote a tune called “I Like the Mango.” With a nod to the jaunty rhythm of “Molokai Slide,” the lyrics are designed to express the sentiments of mango lovers everywhere:
Don’t want no stringy ones, only like the smooth kind,
but if you bring me green ones, I’ll send you to the chutney line.
Blend ’em with the cream and a little bit of lime,
and you sit in your paradise and sip away the time.
Like ’em just the way they are, sliced on a plate,
nothing like a mango, yeah, they sure taste great!
Back on O‘ahu, Mark Suiso is visting Arthur Agena, an animated and energetic 87-and-a-half-year-old (“You gotta remember the half,” he likes to insist) who comes from a line of Okinawan farmers. On his property, Agena raises mostly avocadoes and mangoes. He used to farm vegetables; fruit trees require more space but less maintenance. He also grows bittermelon, which, he explains, is for medicine for his friend. Sharing the literal fruits of his labor brings him a sense of rejuvenation, Agena says.
The seasoned grower talks about the intimate relationship growers have with their trees. “You can feel the tree. You know when it needs help.” With the pride of a contented father, he points to a tall Pope mango tree next to his house that he says is a tree he planted eighteen years ago. He once told the tree, “You the master of this place. You the firstborn. You take care your family.”
Suiso’s mission is to bring back the backyard mango— and not only because of the mango itself. “What’s striking is this energy the trees bring to the community. Try going to newer neighborhoods without mango trees. You’re not going to see that,” he laments. Offering a few examples of what he calls “mango diplomacy,” he illustrates the social value of sharing the home-grown fruit. “I can be the biggest jerk,” he states, “but if I have a box of mangoes from the yard, I’m instantly your friend.”
Suiso believes that there’s a mango Renaissance happening across the Islands and that it’s gaining momentum. “There’s a growing number of mango connoisseurs,” he notes, confident that a prevalent backyard mango culture can be resurrected. “On YouTube I’m seeing an attempt to teach the uninitiated how to peel a mango.” These indicators give him hope that there will soon be many more mango growers. “If you don’t have a tree in your yard, you don’t have a soul. If you have a fruit tree you’re grounded,” he preaches, reminding people of the trade-offs as houses get bigger and yards get smaller. “Anything tree-ripened is gold,” he continues. “It’s hard to get a perfectly ripened mango in a grocery store. You have to go to the backyard.”
This year Mangoes at the Moana will take place at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider on July 21. There will also be a mango festival on the Big Island on July 28 and 29 at the Keauhou Beach Resort.