It’s that time of the year again, when yellow globs appear on the green santol foliage, giving us the fruits of one of the most popular Philippine trees. Soon, we’ll have santol all over, as it seems like every other friend hereabouts has a santol tree in the yard. It won’t be a surprise to be getting baskets of this fruit in the coming days. It is that common and abundant.
Me, I already got the first bag of santol for this season, courtesy of Good Friend J who sent it over the other day, the first harvest of their backyard tree, and they were proudly sweet, with just the right whiffs of sourness, not too fluffy but not flat either, enough for one to have something to bite and suck on. It was not the Bangkok variety, thank you, because that one feels like one is eating sweet cotton, with seeds that are abnormally small for fruits that are especially large. It was native gid ya, G said, but of special variety.
For all the abundance of santol when its season peaks – I think this time it will be somewhere on the third week of May – it is one fruit whose culinary worth we have not yet really plumbed. To this day, the most popular way of serving santol is really just as a fruit, perhaps peeled and rolling in salt – sometimes in sugar, too – maybe chilled. But that’s it, the most popular use we have for the santol is as fruit. The tamarind at least has several candied and other preserved versions being sold commercially.
Yet like most Philippine fruits, santol can be preserved, candied, and used, yes, souring ingredient, as in sinigang sa santol.
There was this old and giant santol tree in the yard of Good Friend C’s house that served more as a shade than anything else, the fruits so flat, ordinary and unexciting, until he came up with the idea of pickling them. They peeled the santol and threw out the tasteless seeds and soaked the skin in brine. Now that santol stands as shade – and source of one of the best pickles I have tried. The thing with this pickle was, the same formula won’t work with other santol verieties; it only worked with this kind, like this tree was really meant to be made into this kind of pickle.
There is also santol juice and for this, the Bangkok variety is good. It is made by taking out as much peel out of the fruit and the remains chopped finely and added to water. The seeds are mashed by hands – with gloves, of course — until the essence of santol is teased out; this is also added to the water. Sugar to taste is added, then it is frozen and served just as ice is forming. One lady whose kitchen makes this uses the punch bowl to made the juice; then she puts the bowl inside the freezer and use it to serve the ice santol juice. It is a remarkable juice, and for us Pinoys who grew up eating santol every summer, yes, it tastes of summers past.
The more traditional way of doing santol when its season peaks of course is to candy it: take out the outer peel and seeds, and then boil it in sugar. Some folks add coconut milk to this to cut the boring taste of fruit candy.
For us Negrenses, however, a surprising use of the santol is an souring ingredient, which we do not do in our kitchens. While it is not as popular as sinigang sa sampaloc, santol sinigang is part of the Tagalog eating tradition.
For this, the santol is boiled – I guess like our batwan – until it sours the broth which is then used as stock on which to cook the dish, using fish, shrimp or pork. Again, one has to find the santol variety that is as sour as possible to achieve that fruity-sour-even-tangy edge of a good sinigang.
The trick, as you must have noticed, is to know your santol and what sort of fruits it bears so as to find the best use for them.*