KAILUA-KONA — The 10th annual Mango Festival held Saturday at Hale Halawai was about more than just the mango or the dozens of varieties that grow throughout Hawaii.
It was, for many at this weekend’s festival, a way to promote a way of eating that is both sustainable and supports local farmers.
“You can act responsibly and sustainably to take care of the land, take care of yourself and, most of all, to be an example of what it is to live in paradise,” said Randyl Rupar, president of Sanctuary of Mana Ke‘a Gardens, the nonprofit that put on the event.
The festival put more on display than just fresh mangoes, also featuring a variety of demonstrations, presentations and vendors showing different sides of the popular fruit.
Among the presenters was Chef Stephen Rouelle, owner of Under the Bodhi Tree in Waimea, who demonstrated the preparation of a coconut-mango chilled soup, a dish that brings together the flavors of a green curry — lemongrass, cilantro, chilis and turmeric among them — blended with mango and coconut milk. All told, it’s a meal that came together in less than 15 minutes.
The weekend marked Rouelle’s fourth time participating at the Mango Festival, saying that given the festival’s support of local produce and local farmers, he loves being a part if it.
In addition to demonstrating that plant-based eating neither has to be very expensive or time-consuming, he also stressed the adaptability of the soup he prepared, explaining during his presentation how to swap out ingredients for different flavor profiles — replace the lemongrass with cumin and it takes on a more southwestern feel — or changing out ingredients for whatever’s seasonal and available at the market: mangoes in the summer, avocados in the fall.
Keying in on that, he said, gives people an opportunity to apply simple concepts to a variety of produce that they might see rotating in and out of a farmer’s market throughout the year, be it mango, avocado, sweet potato or breadfruit.
“All a recipe really is is an applied concept,” he said, “once you have that framework, you can then apply that recipe in lots of different ways.”
The demonstration was also a celebration of the bounty the island had to offer. Nearly all of his ingredients, he noted during the demonstration, came from Hawaii Island. That approach is an extension of his restaurant, he said, where 60 percent of the food they serve is produced within 100 miles.
“I like to think that I vote with my dollars,” he said. “So if I’m spending dollars on local farmers, these are my neighbors, this is my community and that money stays here on the island, rather than going off to wherever to support those crops.”
Rupar also emphasized that focus on sustainability and self-sufficiency, noting those living in the islands long ago didn’t depend on ships importing food, clothing and shelter into their communities.
“We can create whatever we want,” he said, “because we live in paradise. We lack for nothing.”
The festival was also an opportunity for people to learn to exercise their own green thumbs, with presentations on grafting and soils as well as tables where people could seek advice from groups like the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers.
“It’s really a good time to be in ag,” said Ken Love, executive director of the group, citing the work of “a really pro-active” Department of Agriculture and lawmakers like Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Richard Creagan, who chair the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment and the House Committee on Agriculture, respectively.
“These guys, they really want to promote agriculture,” he said, “and not just big company ags, they’re really focused on the small guys too.”
And for Love, he said, if there’s one person that’s serious about growing a single mango tree, he said, that means less imports from faraway places like Mexico.
“So for me,” he added, “it’s import substitution.”
And furthermore, planting something like a mango tree is a chance to connect with the past, particularly a time when you either grew your food or went hungry.
Love said many of the questions he had fielded throughout the day came from people already cultivating their own mangoes and sought advice on topics like pruning. But Love noted that for anything to grow and be productive, it takes work.
“You can’t just stick something in the ground and not do anything and expect to get fruit next year,” he said. “So it requires work, but the rewards are worth it.”