I was talking to Ray Ong (the Philippine Star editor for Philippine Gardens) last week in the Philippine Native Plant Concervation Society's Christmas Party. He solved the long mystery of my child hood of what those ball encasements were made of. The good news is it came from the fruit of another native tree (but could also be seen in a lot of Asian countries), the bitaog. The bad news, he told me how they are made.
Bitaog (also called Palo Maria or dangkalan in some provinces) or Calophyllum inophyllum is a handsome tree growing near the coastal areas of Asian islands. Because it is easy to grow, it is commonly used as a park or landscape tree. I am not sure though how this coastal plant got to figure into the manufacturing of a highland delicacy, probably because Baguio is adjacent to a lot of coastal provinces like Pangasinan and La Union.
The part of bitaog used for sundot-kulangot are the fruits. The bitaog fruit is not palatable but the rigid shell is dried up. The fruit shell is then split into 2 and the lower part - without the stem - is used to encase small portions of cocojam (when the cocojam hardens it look like booger, hence the name). They get another non-stemmed half to enclose the jammed-up half, and sealed with red-colored paper. Several of these are then tied up using bamboo sticks braces.
In the UP Lantern Parade, I brought a few sticks of sundot-kulangot with me to share with some classmates. It was hard opening up each orb and scooping the jam out with bare fingers. Landscape Architect Nappy Navara taught us the right way to eat it. The bamboo stick braces are detached from the packaging and used as a poking stick and scoop for the 'kulangot'.
So what makes anything in this bad news? Some of these small home industries - that get to cook the cocojam and package them into sundot-kulangot - forget to wash the bitaog fruit casings. They get to pick them straight from the tree, dry them up and fill them up straight with the jam. So you now know what makes them so special. Maybe some of the flavor of the bitaog gets into them