The delicious smell of a home-cooked meal wafts from my mother’s kitchen as I write this on the third day of yet another long weekend holiday. Earlier, my upper body workout for the day involved grating this fruit myself.
Today’s menu — SANTOL.
Santol (sandoricum koetjape) is a fruit-bearing tree believed to have originated in Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, which found its way to India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and many other islands. It is also known as santor or katul in other parts of the Philippines; saton or katon in Thailand; sau chua in Vietnam; ketjapi in Indonesia; kompem reach in Cambodia; and santor or wild mangosteen in Guam.
It surely found a way to our kitchen. To me, it’s simply LUNCH.
Until I tasted my mother’s recipe, santol had always been …. santol. In my younger years, it was just that brown, sour, spherical fruit picked from a tree in our backyard. The light brown, firm flesh was eaten with rock salt. The huge, juicy seeds at the core were sucked on like candy. I rolled the santol seed in my mouth ever so gently for fear I’d swallow a seed and grow a santol tree on my head. That was the only way I knew how to eat it. It was the stuff my summer vacations were made of.
Now, ginataang santol has become this awesome comfort food. Come to think of it, even if I didn’t need any comforting, I’d gladly take the santol anytime over fancier and more complicated dishes like menudo, mechado, adobo and all their rhyming ilk. It’s best eaten with fried fish, but will do just fine as is.
How it all started
My mother probably already forgot about this, but I still remember the story. My mother — a nurse — got the recipe from one of her old,
Along with blood pressure readings came amusing stories and debates on cooking and eating. My mother would recite a litany of food items to avoid when one has high blood pressure. The old man from Laguna smugly said “walang bawal-bawal sa ‘kin.”
It was during one of those conversations when the patient gave Mama a copy of his special santol recipe which he said has been prepared in their family kitchen for ages. He said it was a traditional dish from Laguna that was supposedly good for lowering blood pressure. When my mother read the recipe, she knew he was kidding. The recipe called for coconut milk, sliced pork fat and bagoong (shrimp paste) — dreadful items in any hypertensive’s safe low-fat, low-sodium diet.
In the written recipe, right beside the “4 cloves garlic” in the ingredients was the recommendation to “double or triple” the amount (of garlic) because it’s “good for high blood”. The next ingredient was “3 cups coconut milk” which had the words “patay…natalo ang bawang” neatly written beside it. Weirdo alert.
The recipe ended with the line “Remove (the pan) from fire. Offer a silent prayer of thanks to the Earthmen. Eat.” Oooookaaay.
My mother’s a Bulakeña/Ilocana so she wasn’t at all familiar with the ginataang santol, sinantol or sinantolan recipe from Laguna. But she did try it — even if the odd recipe talked of coconut milk versus garlic wars and offering silent prayers to the Earthmen. Lucky me, I was the one in the family who fell in love with the sharp, tart taste of santol mellowed with smooth coconut milk.
Mama starts by sautéing 4 cloves of garlic with half a cup of sliced pork fat. She adds 1/3 cup of coconut milk when the garlic and pork fat have turned golden brown. She then puts in shelled small shrimps, bagoong to taste, shredded santol flesh, and 2/3 cup more coconut milk. The mixture is then cooked for a few minutes before throwing in sliced green pepper.
My mother couldn’t remember from what particular town in Laguna the recipe-toting old man came from. She couldn’t even remember his name! It has been years and for all she knows, he could already be in heaven having a feast, eating all the rich, artery-clogging food forbidden by his doctors and nurses.
And the story continues
Over the years, the cooking style has changed. Instead of small native santols, with the distinctively sour and biting flavor, Mama now uses the Bangkok variety which is much bigger and sweeter. Instead of using fried pork fat, she now sticks to shrimp and shrimp paste for more flavor. I’ve seen and tasted versions from other Southern Tagalog areas like Bicol and Quezon, but somehow the bastardized version from Bulacan is on top of my list.
Sadly, the original recipe with all the crazy notes handwritten on a piece of paper is gone. I’m blogging about that santol recipe here to keep it for posterity.
And now, it’s chow time!!! I’m offering a silent prayer of thanks to the Earthmen.