What do broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes have in common? Well, yes, they’re all vegetables. But there’s something else, too. Something that not too many people know about. I’ll give you a clue. They’re the same as roses, violets and lavender. Got it yet? The answer is – they’re all flowers. The first three fall into the category of ‘inflorescent vegetables’ – that is to say, the flowers or flower buds of plants that are eaten as vegetables. But the roses, violets, lavender and many other flowers have another thing in common with these vegetables. And that is – all of them are also edible.
Most people today seem a little disturbed at the idea of eating flowers, and for two reasons. The first is that it’s not usual. You don’t see them in tins or packets on supermarket shelves, or on your plate in a restaurant. And the second is that there are lots of plants that are poisonous or toxic. The safe option being that if you’re not sure what’s edible or not, then it’s best to steer clear. But things didn’t used to be this way. It’s only really in the last century that flowers and buds have fallen out of favour as a toothsome morsel. If we look back to Victorian Europe, then we’ll see people everywhere, cheerfully chewing on flowers. The ones already mentioned, along with primroses and marigolds, found their way into soups, cakes, biscuits and confectionary. But, if you think about wine making, or teas for that matter, then there seems nothing strange about ingesting concoctions of roots, leaves or flowers. It’s all a matter of viewpoint.
Actually, eating flowers has been in and out of style since the early days of the Roman Empire, when rose petals and violets were a part of any respectable banquet. The Moors, in the 13th century, used sauces and syrups made from roses or marigolds. And, more recently, pumpkin flowers have caught on in the USA, due to the Mexicans using them in quesadillas. Nowadays, in Italy, the yellow zucchini blossoms – fiore di zucca – are stuffed with cheese and fried in a beer batter. And today, in Thailand, you’ll find examples of flowers being used in dishes throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom, although they’re not always that obvious. In fact, if you’ve ever eaten a real pad Thai, then the chances are that you’ve already had your first taste of the massive banana flower without even knowing it.
The first recorded use of flowers in Thai cuisine comes from the ‘Golden Age’ of Thai history, when the Royal Court moved to Ayutthaya, in the early 15th century. The expensive and courtly dish of kao chae – jasmine-petal perfumed rice – became a favourite, due to its cooling and refreshing aromatic properties. And, even today, you’ll find that this exotic form of rice makes a traditional appearance at the celebrations of Songkran, the Thai New Year.
But flowers and buds find their way into everything here. Many dishes use the ubiquitous Thai basil, which is similar to sweet basil, but tastes a little of anise, with a faintly liquorice aroma. The edible leaves with their purple-tinted buds are used extensively in curries, stir-fries, salads and soups. And the purple-pink foot-long banana flower, called hua plee, can be seen hanging majestically wherever the broad-leaved banana trees are found. Interestingly, most of the flower goes to waste. It’s picked as a (gigantic) bud, and then stripped to its tender white heart. It has a similar taste to artichokes and, as well as finding its way into pad Thai, it’s used widely in Thai salads.
There’s a lot of very exotic tropical fruit and flowers around, so keep your eyes out for some of the more unusual ones, particularly in you’re in northern areas of Thailand. The curcuma plant – grajiew – is from the same family as ginger. But
when the root has put out stems, it produces a beautiful and complex multi-layered, bright magenta fleshy flower. These are blanched and eaten with dishes such as sour pork salad – yam nam sod, and sour fish sausage – sai grog pla nam.
And, when it comes to colour, then the Malay rose apple – chompoo – comes a close second. Although the fruits are more usually enjoyed, the flowers are a luminous shocking pink. You’ll find them present in many variations of the spicy northern spicy ground-pork dish – laab, and also the popular som tam salad.
But it’s when we turn to the Thai desserts that we find a positive plethora of flora! Many dishes are rice-based in one form or another, and the edible flowers not only add colour, but are also used to add fragrance. Jasmine is a perpetual favourite,
along with rose petals, and also the pale yellow, pendulous ylang-ylang or ‘cananga’ blossoms. And you’ll find these also in soups and puddings. If you haven’t already noticed any flowers in your diet since you’ve been here, then keep an eye out. Apart from the colourfully-obvious desserts, and perhaps the odd bud or two in your curry, they’re hard to spot.
For many of us, ‘flowers in our food’ doesn’t seem quite right. But then, I’m told that ‘flower food’ is making a comeback, and in a few years’ time it’ll all be quite normal again – such is fashion. But, over here in Thailand, it’s nothing new. They
been saying it with flowers all along, and eating their words!
Rob De Wet