Craftmen strive to keep ancient art of food container-making alive

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It could take several days to carve elaborate Khmer designs onto buildings, clothing, jewellery and of course, chan srak with a hammer and chisel. Photo supplied

Beginning this Saturday, when the waning moon marks two weeks until the commencement of Pchum Ben religious festivities, you may notice that locals will carry intricately decorated, tiered-containers into pagodas.

In case you’re wondering, they’re called chan srak in Khmer, and the containers have been a part of everyday Cambodian lives for hundreds of years.

Their modern, unadorned counterparts are still commonly used today as lunchboxes or to transport food during long journeys.

Monk Som Chan from Ounalom pagoda said the containers evolved from ancient clay or wooden containers like plates, bowls or jars which were later stacked on top of each other to make food easier to transport.

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Their modern, unadorned counterparts are still commonly used today as lunchboxes or to transport food during long journeys. afp

“Our ancestors’ food containers were bigger and they were normally placed in baskets with handles attached to make them easier to carry around. Sometimes people would use sticks to transport them.

“Later as civilisation further developed and metal became abundant, so too did cuisine and people needed more containers to carry a greater variety of food.

“That is probably how the tier metal food containers called chan srak were created.

“The round containers were deep enough for different types of food, from steamed rice, soup, and dessert,” said Chan.

Today, elaborate chan srak with traditional Khmer motifs are customary to carry offerings to monks on the behalf of deceased relatives ahead of Pchun Ben.

However, while the tradition of carrying offerings in chan srak remains unchanged, the number of craftsmen making them is dwindling, third-generation metalsmith Vann Sitha told The Post.

Sitha had his craft handed down from him from his grandfather.

“We only stopped during the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1979, when it was toppled, my parents started making engraved bronze, copper, brass and silver goods again.

“I became a professional in carving and making artistic metal containers when I was 18-years-old. Fewer people are learning the skill today.”

Vann’s workshop (Phnhi Tes) is located 40km from Phnom Penh in Por Toch village, Kampong Luong Commune, Ponhea Lueu District, Kandal Province – once renowned for its metalwork.

He spends several days with a hammer and chisel to carve elaborate Khmer designs onto buildings, clothing, jewellery and of course, chan srak.

Lately, he’s been getting a lot of interest online thanks to an exquisitely carved, gold chan srak.

“It weighs around 2.9kg and is 40cm high – including the handle. The lowest container is 8cm deep and the other three containers are 7cm deep,” Vann says of his most famous chan srak.

Taking into account that the everyday chan srak sold at local markets retail for $10-$20 a set, Vann’s are considered luxurious.

“This set is sold for $290 because we have to labour for several hours to make it and the client has to place an order two months ahead of time,” Vann says of his most famous creation.

Despite the high price, Vann says some people are willing to pay for an artisanal piece that is only brought out a couple of times a year during religious festivals.

He charges customers based on the weight of the final product. Copper and brass varieties can be bought for less, Sitha says.

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While the tradition of carrying offerings in chan srak remains unchanged, the number of craftsmen making them is dwindling. Photo supplied

“Copperware cost $50-$100 per kg, while silver versions cost $35-$100 per kg.

“Fewer people are making them but the popularity of chan srak has never waned because it’s so convenient to pack lots of different foods into just one container.

“Traditionally, chan srak have between three to five tiers, allowing people to pack rice, a few dishes and a dessert for monks on religious occasions,” says Vann.

The Pchum Ben religious festival occurs on the 10th month of the Khmer lunar calendar. This year, the festival begins on September 28.

It is unclear when Pchum Ben was first commemorated, as there are no specific historic text that mentions it until the reign of King Ang Duong in the mid 19th century.

For two weeks (September 14-27 which is the period of the waning moon) before the big day which falls on the September 28, many Cambodians would carry chan srak filled with food to offer monks at pagodas.

Vann says that customers began contacting him with orders months ago to secure a chan srak made with his hands.