Savoring Pickled Mango

Reading this might just make your mouth water.
Pickled mangoes, like these, have long been enjoyed. According to Harvard University Press, an 1806 dictionary gives instructions on mango pickling. photo: Olivier Koning

Begin a conversation about pickled mango and, within a minute or two, someone will admit that their mouth is watering. Just the thought of the sweet-and-sour, tangy juice that accompanies the crunchy, perfectly pickled slice of green mango has that effect.

Pickled mango is sold along country roads, at neighborhood stores or in the ubiquitous crack seed shop, and made by many a home cook, pickled mango is one of the "small-kid time," legendary snacks of Hawai’i.

"I grew up eating pickled mango on Kaua’i," says aficionado Warren Haruki. The president and CEO of Grove Farm and trustee of Parker Ranch judges pickled mango by its taste and texture. "It has to have a good balance of sweet and sour and it has to be crunchy." For those who have not grown up eating pickled mango, it can be an acquired taste.

While we might think pickled mango is a uniquely Hawai’i treat, it’s not. It is made in Australia, South Africa, Thailand, Cambodia, Vienam and no doubt other places where mangoes thrive. Saturating mangoes with an acid like vinegar is an age-old method of food preservation used throughout the world.

There are as many recipes for pickled mango as there are recipes for apple pie, but the ingredients are simple: vinegar, sugar, salt and green mangoes. The vinegar can be white, cider or rice vinegar; the sugar should be granulated to keep the liquid clear. In his book, On Food and Cooking, food scientist Harold McGee notes that using unrefined sea salt, which contains small amounts of magnesium and calcium, will help to maintain the crispness of pickled foods.

Now that your mouth is watering, try this recipe.

3 cups green mango slices
10 li hing mui (optional)
1 cup rice vinegar
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup Hawaiian salt

Place mango slices in a clean glass jar with li hing mui, if using. Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. When sugar and salt are dissolved, remove from heat and cool to lukewarm. Pour over mangoes. Cover and let stand for 24 hours, then store in refrigerator.

Recipe courtesy Hawaiian Electric Co.

What makes pickled mango special in Hawai’i is the balance of vinegary tartness with the sweetness of sugar, the red food coloring used by some cooks, and perhaps, a little flavor kick from li hing mui, the five spice, sugar-and-salt-preserved plum.

And, of course, you’ll need green mangoes. Look for mature green mangoes that have a hint of yellow; greenish white flesh is too tart for a good pickled mango. While using a mango that falls to the ground in a gust of wind is fine, a mango plucked with the intent of being eaten green is usually best. The imported green mangoes in supermarkets may not be a good bet, since their flesh has often softened a bit in transit.

As you peel a green mango, a distinctive, fragrant aroma will waft toward your nostrils, enhancing the anticipation of what is to come. Slice the mango, retrieving every morsel off the seed, pack it into a jar and pour the pickling mixture over. Wait a day before you plunge in. The pickles will keep several weeks in the refrigerator—if they’re not eaten immediately.