Tropical Pick – A look at the Santol


“So they took it away, and were married next day
By the turkey who lives on the hill.
And they dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.”

Extract from ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear (1812 – 1888).

What on earth is runcible? And who took what away? And what’s quince? Who wrote this stuff anyway? And runcible doesn’t mean rusty, either (it’s actually a fork curved like a spoon, with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting). And, a quince is a sort of bitter apple – unless it’s a tropical quince, that is. And then – well actually it’s quite sweet.

And so, without further ado, let’s go and look at the santol. Or maybe not. First let’s consider cashew nuts. Fact: nuts grow inside shells or husks, which are the fruit of trees. Peanuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts – they’re all the same. Except for cashew nuts. With this one, the fruit comes up looking like an apple. And then, a little lump appears on its wrinkled bottom. A few weeks later, this lump becomes recognisable as a baby cashew nut – growing outside, on the surface. It’s one of nature’s less serious fruits. Nature, being fickle and liking a joke now and again, decided to have some fun – and so created a whole family of similar fruit trees – the Meliaceae family. And the cashew is one of the members of this family.

A cousin of the cashew is the quince. And the sister of the quince is the tropical quince. Which is more or less the same – except that you can actually eat it uncooked. (With some things, the only you can do with them is to turn them into

The santol. The tropical quince – sandoricum koetjape. The only really cute one out of the whole family. The only one that you’d want to take home to meet your mother. The only one that’s edible raw. It doesn’t look like much, but when you fancy a snack… In Malaysia, it’s known as the saton. In the Philippines, they call it the santor. In Indonesia, it’s the sentool. And
here, in Thailand, the name is ka-thon.

It’s a fast growing tree – straight-trunked and pale-barked – and it can reach heights of up to 150 feet. It’s not particularly pretty – and, unlike many similar trees, it’s not cultivated for its decorative qualities. Most of the tropical fruits enjoy long seasons, but this one is a little more nervous – and it struggles to produce the goods for more than two months a year. Look out for it in a two-month period around May/June/July.

The tropical quince is a native of what was once known as Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Sometime in the last three or four hundred years, it wobbled into Thailand, where it survived in the warmer, southern parts. Needless to say, it
also managed to creep into all the surrounding areas, from India, down to the Pacific Islands and parts of Australia, too. But it just can’t stand the cold. And despite many repeated attempts to cultivate this sweet one, it’s always failed to grow
in cooler climes.

This dowdy little fruit comes in two varieties – plain reddish and dull yellowish. And they both taste the same, even though their texture is mottled and scabby, and not too attractive. The fruit looks quite ordinary – it’s round with a downy surface, much like a peach with a bad complexion. The rind is soft and quite thick, with a milky sort of juice. And if you feel so inclined – you can eat it. (Most people don’t bother.) But cut it in half, and it gets to look like a lot more fun. The white, translucent, juicy flesh makes a pretty cloverleaf shape. And in the middle of each of the (three or four) ‘leaves’, nests a big, firm, brown seed. These are inedible (not that you’d want to bother with these, anyway).

The usual way to set about eating one of these fruits is simply to chop it in half with a knife, and then scoop out the seeds. The two halves are firm enough to be used as little cups – so simply go for it with a spoon (runcible or otherwise). Other
than this, people mostly turn it into jam – as with its Western counterpart.

One of the highlights of most tropical fruit is that they have (of late) been found to possess all sorts of wonderful medicinal benefits. When distilled, the roots, bark, seeds or fruit are effective in treating a multitude of conditions, from coughs to
chronic cancers. But, alas! Not so, here. The plain little santol-quince, you can make jam with. And that’s just about it.

However, all is not quite lost. The tree, at least, is rather useful. The wood is hard and heavy, easy to saw, and to work with generally. As a result, it finds its way into the building industry, into furniture factories, and into a lot of boats, carts,
and household utensils.

If someone, one day, were to hold a grand ball for tropical fruits, then the santol would attract few admirers. Whilst the glamorous mangosteen, the exotic and whiskered rambutan, and the bizarre dragon fruit would all be waltzing round
the floor with their partners, the little santol would still be sitting all alone on the side-lines. The quince is hardly a star. But then – at least one person has thought enough of it to put it in a timeless poem. How many of these other fruits can lay claim to that?

Rob De Wet