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Sandan: Beyond a fruit, a legacy of Khmer cuisine

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Sandan fruit slices dry in the sun in Koh Sotin district of Kampong Cham province in August. FACEBOOK

Sandan: Beyond a fruit, a legacy of Khmer cuisine

In Cambodia, the sandan tree, also known as Garcinia cochinchinensis in Latin or false mangosteen, has long been treasured. Its sour fruit is traditionally savoured either pickled or boiled with betel nut to achieve a radiant hue.

Lately, the use of fresh sandan in soups has diminished, giving way to a penchant for the sour pickled fruit blend.

Strolling through a village of Kampong Cham’s Koh Sotin district, one can’t help but notice the collection of white mats and metallic sheets. These are spread out in front of the homes, used by villagers like Den Soeun to sun-dry sandan slices.

Den Soeun, a spry 66-year-old from Village 5, paints a vivid picture of the local landscape.

“In the Koh Sotin district, sandan trees abound naturally. With seeds dispersing during the floods, they implant themselves throughout the village. This ensures that nearly every home has a sour fruit tree close by, some villagers even upholding the ancient practice of deliberate the tree planting”.

“Owing to its deep-rooted importance, sandan fruit has transformed into a staple crop,” he remarked.

Used diversely, it’s a beloved ingredient in soups, gets blended with prahok (a fermented fish paste), and forms delectable dipping sauces.

Soeun proudly speaks of the 15 sandan trees in his garden, planted half a decade ago.

“They are most fruitful from June to September. Thankfully, these trees demand little upkeep,” he mentions.

“This season sees us, villagers, engrossed in sandan fruit harvesting. Some households boast a bounty of these trees, while others have fewer”.

However, Soeun notes a concerning trend. The spontaneous growth of sandan trees has diminished compared to yesteryears. This has led to a surge in proactive planting by the villagers.

Trees mature enough to bear fruit in two years, but to savour the best quality fruit, a tree should age for at least five years.

Each tree generously offers between 20 to 70 kilograms of fruit. Once plucked, these fruits are thinly sliced and sun-dried.

If blessed with ample sunlight, a mere three days suffice for drying. Traders, recognising the value of dried sandan fruit, directly approach the villagers to purchase.

As for pricing, Soeun elucidates: “In scarcer months, dried sour-soup fruit fetches me between 15,000 to 22,000 riel ($3.75 to $5.50) per kilogram. However, this August has seen prices dip a bit, hovering around 10,000 to 12,000 riel”.

Yet, for Soeun, dried sandan fruit is more than just a trade; it supplements his income. An intriguing use of the fruit is its boiling with betel nut, resulting in a striking red shade.

With a tone of contentment, he asserts: “The dried sandan fruit business thrives, with nary a piece left unsold. Traders are ever-eager, as the demand for it remains robust”.

Koh Sotin’s commune chief, Sun Chantha, shared a glimpse into the heritage of the sandan tree with The Post.

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“Passed down from our ancestors, sandan fruit is more than just a crop. While a few households might cultivate just a single tree for personal delight, the majority are surrounded by multiple sandan fruit trees,” he said.

What sets the sandan fruit apart is its distinct sour flavour, quite unlike that of lemons.

“Despite market price ebbs and flows, dried sandan fruit has an unwavering fanbase,” Chantha noted.

Recognising its market appeal, villagers have enthusiastically embraced sour fruit tree farming, even repurposing unused lands for its cultivation. The cost of sandan fruit, according to Chantha, has seen a spike this year.

“In June, as the season dawned, it was tagged between 20,000 to 22,000 riel per kilogram. Today, it’s down to 10,000 riel,” he explained.

But what’s heartening is sandan’s minimal upkeep needs, especially when stacked against other crops.

Providing a broader perspective, Sim Thavireak, head of the Kampong Cham’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, discussed the geographical spread of sour fruit trees.

“Primarily aligning riverbanks, canals, and smaller rivers, sandan trees dot the landscape. In fact, drying sandan fruits has become a bustling activity in Koh Sotin district,” he told The Post.

Thavireak further added: “From my observations, villagers have adopted commendable hygiene standards in their drying methods. And it’s uplifting to see a palpable rise in drying ventures compared to the previous year. The trend now leans towards converting fresh sandan fruit to its dried counterpart for trading”.


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