Keeping the mathum tradition alive
Thailand is famous for its abundant tropical fruit, but not all of them are as well known as mango and durian. Case in point: mathum (aka “bael fruit”, “stone apple”, “bela” or “Indian quince”) look something like green mango or avocado with the peel still on, and could be mistaken for a large orange when sliced in half.
The seed-filled flesh is hard and bitter off the tree, but it can be transformed into decadent candies: two families down a Thonburi side street have been making this sweet treat for more than 70 years.
For the families at Baan Pa Thue down Arun Ammarin Soi 23 (aka Soi Trok Mathum) and Raan Baan Mathum around the corner, mathum is a way of life. The elderly leader of Baan Pa Thue, herself named Pa Thue, recalls how several decades ago, Soi Trok Mathum was filled with mathum businesses.
In those days, she reminisced, kids would play on the large mounds of green mathum peels that piled up along the street when the fruit was in season between July and March each year. Although mathum remain popular in Thailand both in its dried form — which is used for making a herbal tea — and as a sweet, few households continue the tradition down Soi Trok Mathum today.
Handed down for generations in this historic Thonburi neighbourhood, the process of making candied mathum starts with peeling, slicing and removing the seeds from each fruit. Baskets of prepared mathum are then soaked for about five hours in massive ceramic vases filled with a mix of water and a deep red paste known as naam buun, which is made from a certain type of shell. As the water tenderises the fruit, the nam buun lends just enough firmness, keeping the mathum from turning to mush during the next step.
Similar to the process of cooking rice, the mathum are then slow-boiled for hours in sugar water until most of the syrupy fluid has been soaked up by the fruit, at which point they’re taken off the fire, glazed with a final coating of sugar, and left to cool for several hours. The boiling process is a tedious chore that lasts from late night to early morning and requires continual stirring; when the night shift goes to bed, the day shift emerge to start the process all over again. Baan Pathue still heats its mathum the traditional way by using Thai-style charcoal grills. Raan Baan Mathum have switched to propane heaters.
What emerges in either case are sweet hunks of orange goodness with a sticky outer coating, firm but relatively soft inner texture and a slightly tangy flavour that calls to mind dried tangerines. The fruit’s darker middle section, which soaks in more of the sugar, is especially soft and decadent. It’s difficult to think of these candied fruits as being healthy, but mathum are known throughout Asia to calm the digestive system while contributing several other health benefits. If only wanting the positive effects, however, we recommend sticking to mathum tea.
Both Baan Pathue and Raan Baan Mathum can be found peeling, soaking and boiling mathum on most days between July and March, and they’re happy to show visitors around. You’ll get to see some part of the process at any time of day, but if wanting to catch the nearly finished products being pulled off the fire, you’ll need to get there before 06:00. While Pa Thue herself was most welcoming, a friendly man by the name of Pawuet at Baan Pathue was also thrilled to chat about mathum and let us try some samples, and he speaks a little English. At either spot, you can take home a bag of candied mathum for 150 baht per kilo or 80 baht per half kilo.
The easiest way to get here is to take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Tha Tien pier and hop on the cross-river ferry to Wat Arun. Once on the other side, walk straight past the temple, take a right at the end of the road, and then another right onto Arun Ammarin Road. Then cross the street when you get a chance and look for Soi 23 on the left after less than a kilometre. Baan Pathue is no more than 100 metres down on the right, and Raan Baan Mathum is around the corner if you take a right on the next street. There are no English signs in either case; just look for the display tables out front with bags of orange candied mathum wheels ready for purchase.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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