Flowers that decorate the palate and the plate in Asian Cooking [Part 1]
Today, in the age of social media where nearly every moment in life is potentially an Instagram moment, scattering pretty and colourful flowers atop salads and desserts has become quite a trend. With their attractive shapes and colours, the addition of flowers can really elevate a plate, and a table setting.
Flowers have though long been an intrinsic part of cooking in Asia, with the use of blooms such as saffron by the Sumerians and Assyrians and citron daylily buds by the Chinese dating back millennia, floral additions to dining experiences in Asia long predate the digital insta-age of today.
Whether steeped in nourishing teas or used to fragrance curries, blooms of all colours, shapes and sizes are essential in the Asian kitchen. As a flavouring, as a decoration or garnish, as colouring too, and also for their medicinal and health promoting properties, flowers are a staple of the Asian kitchen.
In this week’s edition we share with you a list of some of our favourite edible flowers that are commonly found in our Asian kitchens. Although not all of them are flowers of cultivated plants, it is certain that the flowers below are always a beautiful and delicious addition to the plates they grace. Be sure to seek them out on your next Secret Retreats holiday in Asia.
Purple-skinned when ripe and shaped like a water-drop, the flower of the banana plant or banana blossom can grow up to 30cm in length and is found at the end of a fruit bunch.
The outer leaves or bracts of the flower, which can be used as serving boats, are peeled away layer by layer to get to the heart – the pale-yellow soft inner bracts of the blossom.
These tender inner bracts are blanched, sliced and thrown into salads like Thailand’s ‘Yam Hua Plee’ a scrumptious appetizer of shallots, shrimp, toasted grated coconut, coriander and bird’s eye chilies, and Malaysia’s ‘Kerabu Jantung Pisang’, or eaten raw on the side of Thailand’s famed favourite noodle dish, ‘Pad Thai’. In Indonesia be sure to seek out the local favourite, ‘Gulai Jantung Pisang’ or banana blossom cooked in coconut milk with galangal, shallots and chili. Also, owing to its chunky and flaky texture, banana blossom makes a great meat substitute in vegetarian cooking and cuisine.
Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
A shrub from the hibiscus family, the roselle’s most distinguishing features are its deep crimson bud and calyces, which are dried and brewed to make a richly flavoursome tea renowned for it’s cholesterol reducing benefits and helping to lower blood pressure.
In Myanmar they call them ‘Chin Baung Ywet’ or sour leaf, where roselle leaves are a popular addition to stir-fries and also feature in ‘Hinjo’, a vegetable-filled clear broth usually eaten with meals.
For Thais, Malaysians and Chinese, a favourite preparation of roselle is an antioxidant-rich juice made from dried roselle flowers that can be enjoyed warm or cold. Accompany these beverages with roselle jam, a sticky, tart spread made from cooked roselle petals. Very high in vitamin C roselle is great for boosting the immune system, is said to prevent mouth ulcers and is also used as a relief for heart burn.
Often grown as a hedge around homes in Southeast Asia, Ixora is a flowering shrub with clusters of ruby, pink, orange or yellow blooms commonly found across Southeast Asia.
These cute little flowers enhance the appearance of summery salads and also lend a subtle sweetness to sorbet and ice cream.
Uniquely in Thailand, some recipes include battered and fried Ixora flowers for a delightfully crunchy tempura that can be eaten dipped in sweet chilli sauce or as a side dish to curry.
Said to have anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, fresh and dried Ixora flowers are also turned into pastes and decoctions to heal a variety of ailments ranging from sinus problems to skin issues.
Commonly known as the butterfly pea or blue pea, this crawling vine native to Southeast Asia produces deep blue blooms that are prized as a natural food colouring. Their signature blue tint brings vibrance to Indonesia’s ‘Nasi Kerabu’ and the sticky rice treat ‘Pulut tai tai’. In Malaysia and Singapore, they call these delightful flowers ‘Bunga Telang’ where they have long featured in both Malay and Peranakan Chinese cuisine.
In Thailand, the liquid from steeping dried butterfly pea flowers in hot water is used to make ‘Nam Dok Anchan’, a refreshing drink often zhooshed up with lemongrass and lime. The citric acid from lime or lemon juice turns the extract a magical purply-pink – a nifty trick you can use when serving butterfly pea flower tea. Because of their mildly vegetal flavour, these flowers make the perfect food dye, lending a vivid hue to everything from rice to desserts, without overpowering other ingredients.
Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior)
We can easily find Torch Ginger, Ginger Lily or Kecombrang growing close to water within wet and humid rain forest in Indonesia and Thailand. Plants grow as a colony and have bright red flowers. The flowers have a slightly sour taste and can be eaten raw as fresh vegetables, or cooked. The people of Northern Sumatra use the flowers of Torch Ginger as a spice for cooking fish sambal and fried rice. Finely shredded torch ginger buds are tossed with shallots and plenty of chilies to make Indonesia’s ‘Sambal Kecombrang’ relish, while in Malaysia and Singapore, torch ginger or ‘Bunga Kantan’, as it is locally known, flavours everything from ‘Laksa’ to ‘Nasi Ulam’ (herb rice).
This edible bloom derives its name from its elongated stem and curved tapered flower that resembles a flaming torch. The aromatic bracts have a floral and gingery scent, and citrusy accents that add zest to salads, soups and curries. Torch ginger often complements seafood as its refreshing scent helps tone down fishy odours. Torch ginger can also be used to make a refreshing sorbet, as well as a syrup for cocktails.
Turi (Sesbania glandiflora)
The vegetable hummingbird is a fast-growing tree that has white, red or pink flowers and fruits that resemble long, thin beans.
Also known as ‘Katurai’ in Tamil, this nutrient-dense plant is believed to have medicinal properties and is widely used in traditional herbal medicine to ease ailments like the common cold.
In Khmer cuisine, the flowers known as ‘Angkea Dei’ are typically cooked in soup, while in Thailand, ‘Gaeng Som Dok Khae’, a spicy-sour southern Thai curry features the blooms, drumstick pods and green papaya, and they are also eaten simply steamed and served as side dish to a rich and spicy shrimp paste dip.
Cherry trees, or ‘Sakura’, are much beloved in Japan, and cherry blossoms are a classic Japanese ingredient, which not only has a very unique flavor but also adds beauty to dishes.
During spring, the beautiful cherry tree blossoms into a sea of pink. For cherry blossom viewing (an activity known as Hanami), many Japanese families make a spring-theme picnic to enjoy under the blossoms of the cherry trees.
‘Sakura Mochi’ is a Japanese dessert that is pink, just like the sakura (cherry blossom flowers) and is a sticky sweet mix of sweet glutinous rice filled with a sweet red-bean paste that is then wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. Traditionally this dessert is enjoyed during ‘Hinamatsuri’ (Japanese Girls’ Day) to celebrate the beginning of spring, as well as to wish good luck and good health for all of the young girls in the family.
Every destination in Asia has hidden magical recipes and ingredients usually known only to the locals or the seriously epicurious. Travel Asia with Secret Retreats and truly taste the terroir as we unveil the sights and sounds and the unique flavours of Asia with you and your loved ones.