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Traditional palm leaf boxes helping to reduce plastic use

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Meals served in traditional woven sugar palm leaf boxes, or smoks. Photo supplied

Traditional palm leaf boxes helping to reduce plastic use

Smoks, or boxes made from palm leaves, have been used to store food since ancient times. In an increasingly environmentally aware world, they are making a comeback as an alternative to plastic and styrofoam. They reduce waste and provide work for artisans in areas which are rich in palm trees.

Sam Khanthorng sells smok under the brand name Smok Makyeay Toch (little grandma’s smok), and has gained a lot of support from customera who love the environmentally friendly packaging option.

A smok is a box made from woven leaves – usually palm, although others are sometimes used – which have been used for centuries by the Cambodian people to put store food, tobacco and palm sugar. Generally, they are not used daily anymore, but are reserved for use as distinctly Khmer souvenirs.

“The sensation of eating rice from a smok is very different from eating out of a plastic box. It gives a certain aroma to the food and makes us feel like we are closer to the simpler, countryside lives of our ancestors,” said Khanthorng.

“I also sell dried beef and dried fish, which is salted. I felt like it was sometimes dry, and had the idea of selling my food in smoks, so it retains its moisture and the rice stays clean,” she told The Post.

When they first went on sale in June, she piloted an online business to survey the market. Her relatives in Kampong Speu knew where to find a supply of smoks, and she ordered them from older artisans in the province, allowing them to earn extra income.

“When I ordered the smoks from them, they were very happy to have the work. They are pleased, and are always ready to produce more for us as soon as we need them,” she said.

Makyeay Toch’s kitchen is located in Tuol Sangke, Russey Keo, Phnom Penh. Located behind Samhan market, it offers seven dishes including fried fish, beef sausage and roasted pork ribs. All dishes are served with rice and are packaged in hand-made smoks and banana leaves.

“My customers are really supportive of the business, and are fascinated by the unique packaging. They are pleased that we are reducing plastic use, too. I also have some customers who are artists and celebrities and they help to promote my food, because they like it,” she said.

She noted that many customers value the use of smoks from Cambodian artisans and recognise that the experience of eating rice from a smok is different foam and plastic boxes.

“We receive good feedback – some people say that it is unusual and creative. Together with our experience in salting meat, I am happy to say that we serve yummy food to our customers. Although we have great packaging, if the taste of our food was not good, we would not be able to grow,” she added.

In one day, Smok Makyeay Toch sells from 50 to 300 sets of food to customers, with each retailing for $3, with pickles and dessert.

“Sales are not always stable. I would say we sell an average of 50 sets online, but we often get large orders of up to 300 sets from people who are going to the province – they like to take them as offerings for the monks,” she said.

In addition, the use of natural materials for packaging is expensive.

“I do face some difficulties with the cost of packaging, which is why I set my prices relatively high, at $3. Most people understand that the smoks are not cheap, so it is reasonable to charge more than other vendors, although a few people have complained,” she said.

Making smoks is not easy. The people who make them must first climb and cutting the palm leaves, and then tear the leaves before drying them and weaving into the required shapes. The craftsmen are meticulous and creative.

“After you eat, you can keep the smok. You just need to remove the banana leaves and use a paper towel to clean it, and then you can reuse it for other purposes,” she explained.

The Ministry of Environment encourages the use of packaging materials based on natural raw materials to provide an alternative to the use of plastic.

Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesman for the ministry, told The Post: “Nowadays, more people are aware of the dangers of overusing plastic products and are changing their behavior and reducing the use of plastic by using cloth shopping bags and turning to eco-friendly water bottles.

“A zero plastic principle has been implemented in some restaurants and schools. This is a positive step forward for reducing plastic use in the Kingdom,” he said.

According to a recent report, Cambodia produces more than 4 million tons of waste a year, of which more than 20 per cent is plastic waste.

As a food seller, Khanthorng said she was happy to be able to earn a living and, most importantly, help the elderly get work and contribute to reducing plastic use.

She plans to expand the selection of dried dishes that are suitable for packaging in smoks.

“I have sold food like pra hoc by the kilo, but I don’t have the right size smoks yet. I already have it prepared for sale, but I am waiting for smoks from the old craftsmen. Soon, my customers will have even more delicious options,” she said.

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