HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
The First Fruits of Summer
Subtropical Hawaii does have seasons; and in the late Spring and early Summer, two of our best fruits come ripe: lychee, from China, and mango from the Indian subcontinent.
Anyone who patronized Chinese restaurants in bygone days may remember eating sweet, dried “litchi nuts,” which are to fresh lychee as raisins are to grapes, or prunes to plums. Lychee are almost never found in the wild: they’re raised in orchards of distinctive small trees with wavy, light-green leaves, that require nurturing to produce quality fruits in quantity.
Ripe lychee are about the size of golf balls, with red, rough-textured skin that you peel off by hand. The translucent white fruit tastes like an especially juicy grape. At about twenty to the pound, you can expect to pay three dollars for a pound of lychee. The original Chinese varieties had large seeds; but twentieth-century agronomists developed varieties with small, “shriveled” seeds, that enable each fruit to have more meat; so you may see those labeled “small seed,” in farmers’ market stalls, and they may be priced a bit higher. Like cherries, canned lychee retain almost all of the fresh fruit’s flavor; so if you can’t get to Hawaii during lychee season, buy a can from the “Asian” section of Mainland supermarkets.
Around this time of year, too, local farmers offer a related fruit called longon. Smaller than lychee, and with a stiff, brown skin, the fruit is much sweeter, though in a cloying sort of way; some people construe it as being rather more aromatic than flavorful. Later in the year, another relative, called rambutan, will come ripe: it has a “hairy” skin, and a taste similar to lychee though not as juicy. Rambutan also has a longer season and a longer shelf-life, so it has become extremely popular in local orchards.
The smallest mangoes are the so-called “common” variety, and they are easily spotted from the roadside. The tree is long-lived and enormous: 80 feet or higher, with 30-foot spreads, dark leaves tinged with red, and an abundance of small fruit that depend from long stems. Saplings can sprout from fallen fruit, but in general, wherever you see a mature tree now, there is or was a settlement there.
Mangoes are related – believe it or not – to poison ivy and poison oak. If you have never eaten one before, you’ll quickly discover if you are hyper-sensitive or allergic to them: you may develop a swarm of (harmless) red welts around your lips that local folks call “mango mouth.” With most people, however, this does not happen.
Common mangoes can and do ripen into sweet, juicy delights, but a few varieties have a taste reminiscent of turpentine. The trees being so big, common mangoes are also hard to pick – you need a long pole with a net or basket on the end – and may well have been stung by fruit-flies before you can even get to them. So, many are picked before they’re ripe and turned into chutney, or prepared as savory treats: local recipes for “green” mango famously include marinating the slices in soy sauce (shoyu).
It’s the cultivated mangoes that are the most consistently sweet, and while there are, technically, hundreds of varieties, they fall into just a few general categories that you’ll find in local farmers’ markets right now.
Closest to “common” in size and taste, with the same greenish skin color, are the slightly elongated “cigar” mangoes. Several varieties are larger and longer still, but have a distinctive yellow-orange skin, much like the color of the fruit itself. (In other countries, such as The Philippines, these are the mangoes that are commercially dried and packaged; and except for the absence of juice, dried mangoes taste almost exactly like fresh mangoes.) The largest mangoes are the Hayden variety, which can grow big enough for two people to share. Expect to pay about fifty cents for a common or cigar mango; a dollar apiece for the larger yellow type, and three or four dollars for a giant Hayden.
All mangoes have large, flat seeds; here’s how to get the most meat out of them: Slice the fruit the “long” way, close to either side of the seed, to yield two cupped-hand-shaped halves. Set those halves aside and peel the strip of rind from around the seed; slice off whatever meat you can, into a bowl, and then (as local folks do) suck the rest of the meat from the edges of the seed before discarding it. Now, for each of the two halves, make tic-tac-toe on the flat side with a knife, but don’t pierce through to the skin. Turn the half-mango inside-out, and you produce neat chunks of juicy mango that you can peel or slice off, into your bowl.