I woke up at six a.m. every day when I was a child. After breakfast I ran to the backyard. Before me were baskets of ripened mangoes. They were amassed on top of and beneath the long, ancient wood table.
The sweet scent of the mangoes permeated the torridly humid air in that early hour.
My Mom held up one ripe, golden mango, with the heavy portion down, and the heart-shaped tip pointing to the heavens. With a swift motion of her slim fingers, she peeled off the mango’s skin, in a long, spiral shape, going around the fruit until its yellow, fibrous flesh stood proud and naked before us.
“This is how you do it,” she said. “Strip the skin carefully, don’t waste the fruit.” Meekly, I obeyed. I was twelve then.
The entire morning was spent peeling mangoes, which came from our farm’s orchard. Once all were peeled, the fruit was crushed against a wide sieve to extract its juice and pulp. We peeled, peeled, peeled, and then we crushed, crushed, crushed.
By afternoon the traditional siesta was forsaken for the continuation of the jam process. Once the pulp had been crushed, my mom fussed, “How much mango pulp was there?” or “How much white sugar are we going to use?”
I sat back quietly, with my sticky, mango-smelling hands at my side and watched the surreal tableau before me. There was something oddly mesmerizing about the discarded slivers of mango skin, long yellow strips, curled up, atop one another, in a heap inside a giant drum container. Alongside this, a huge mountain of discarded mango pits, every single one of them looked forlorn, abandoned and useless.
At this juncture the rituals took a different turn. Without warning, an old woman arrived. She was the “cook” hired by my parents to finalize the last phase of this process, to cook the pulp over a low fire and turn it into the “piece de resistance,” golden mango jam.
She was thin, simply dressed in a long skirt made of cotton, and a starched, white blouse. Her gray hair was piled in a tight bun. She looked serious, and her wrinkly forehead had a harsh look as she peered into the pulp.
She brought her own copper vat and a long wooden spatula. She stirred the pulp with a precision that outdid any chef in the world. Over a low heat, she added cup after cup of white sugar. The shiny, cascading white powder slid into the vat. I lost count after six cups.
The mango pulp started to turn thick. She lowered the fire kindled by firewood. The liquid turned into a thick, rich, gold-dark-brown jam. I watched, eyes glued to the vat, as the sugar turned into thin, transparent silver threads of syrup.
As a treat, I was allowed a taste of the jam. The fragrance of the nectar was sweet, fruity. When I put my lips to the large spoon Mom held out to me, the fiery heat scalded my tongue. However, the sweet, soft and sticky texture made me want more.
When I was growing up, in a rural town called Tarlac, in the north of the Philippines, there was no end to what my Mom would do with mangoes: smoothies, ice cream, jams, pastries and much more. My childhood was spent loving mangoes and the sweet desserts that came from them. As an adult now, I still love them like I have never loved any other fruit.
“Ilabas ang ‘postre’!” my dad ordered. “Postre” is Spanish for dessert. I wondered why my parents called it that, instead of the Tagalog word “himagas,” which I learned in school.
Whether it was postre or panghimagas, dessert was always a reward for me for finishing meals or getting good grades.
I have always equated mangoes with the love of my parents, their strong presence as the glue that held us together. I miss the many mangoes we had, but I miss my parents more.
I’ve tried to recreate the mango jam Mom made, but it has remained elusive. I regret never asking for the recipe. And I never have 100 ripe mangoes to fit into a 12-oz. jar.
Today, what remains in my heart is the memory of those hot, summer days, of tasting the sweet, spoonful of jam for dessert and the memory of my parents. All the mango jam in the world can’t top that.
[This essay won 2nd prize in the Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Award 2012 and is part of the book Savor the Word, a collection of award-winning essays. This is re-published with the permission of the DGF Awards committee. Book design by Tina Besa, cover photo by Stella Kalaw. Published by Anvil Publishing.]
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
Mango Jam Recipe
Servings: Makes a 6-ounce jar
14 pieces fully ripened large mangoes, Ataulfo variety (they are the closest to Manila’s Champagne mangoes)
2 cups granulated white sugar
• Make sure mangoes are fully ripened because it affects the sweetness of the jam.
• Peel the mangoes, using fingers starting at the pointed top of the heart-shaped fruit. With fingers, grasp the skin on the tip and pull the mango peel outwards, away from the fruit. Peel could come off in a spiral strip.
• Place the peeled mangoes in a large, deep pot. Over medium high heat on stovetop, heat the mangoes for about 5 to 6 minutes. Do not heat longer than this and do not leave the mangoes unattended; they burn easily.
•Remove the mangoes from the pot. Slice off the cheeks from the fruit. Place in a food processor. Pulse for about 5 minutes till mango fruit becomes a pulp. This amount of mango fruit yields about 2 cups after it is processed.
• Transfer mango pulp to a medium-size deep pot. Divide the sugar and first use 1½ cups. Add the sugar and blend it well within the mango pulp. Set aside the remaining ½ cup of sugar for the end of cooking.
• Stir the mango and sugar mixture with a wooden spoon, over medium heat. Keep stirring continuously. Cook over medium-to-low heat stove top for about 50 to 55 minutes until mango pulp turns to a thick, dark amber-colored jam. The consistency should be so thick by the end of cooking, that it becomes hard to stir the jam. At the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the last ½ cup of granulated sugar.
• When mango jam is done, remove pot from stovetop. Cool on counter for a few minutes. Once it is lukewarm, before the jam gets too cold, transfer jam to sterilized glass jars. Serve hot or cold as a dessert or bread spread.
Recipe notes: In our home province, my mom cooked this jam in a copper vat, over kindled firewood outdoors, which took longer. Crushing the pulp was done by hand back then. I have changed the process to a quicker method and use a food processor or blender.