There is a profound connection between the Thai people and their biodiversity, and this connection is fully evident in Thailand’s extensive ethnobotany, or the ethnic use of native plants. For instance, flowers like the lotus and jasmine, can be seen crafted into Thai garlands or phuang malai, playing a central role in offerings at temples and shrines.
Thai flowers go beyond mere aesthetics and are also celebrated for their culinary and medicinal value, rooted in the local wisdom of natural remedies. In this article, we explore the world of Thai edible flowers, diving into their culinary uses and health benefits and distinguishing the edible from the inedible among these botanical gems.
What is the difference between edible and inedible flowers?
Thailand has a variety of flowers, but not all can be consumed due to the presence of toxic substances. They are typically categorized into three groups:
1. Edible flowers can be eaten fresh or easily incorporated into various dishes, such as lotus flower, banana blossom, and butterfly pea.
2. Partially edible flowers can be made safe for consumption such as by soaking in saltwater or boiling. Examples include Siamese cassia and Crateva magna.
3. Inedible flowers are toxic under any circumstances and should not be used for culinary purposes or as a garnish due to the presence of substances like cardiac glycosides, which can impact heart function. Examples include oleander and desert rose.
Many edible flowers are also wild greens, or edible plants that native to Thailand, and some flowering trees are also considered auspicious to plant in your garden. That being said, Thailand NOW does not encourage foraging for random wild flowers! Leave that to the experts.
Floral foods: Thai flowers in main dishes
Banana blossom or hua plee
Banana blossom or banana flower are also known as hua plee (หัวปลี) and are the edible part of the banana tree found at the tips of banana clusters. These blossoms are characterized by their tough, purple-red outer layers, with the most desirable portions being the light ivory leaves located in the center. Those who have tasted banana flowers often liken their flavor to that of artichokes or bamboo shoots. They offer a combination of an astringent and mildly bitter profile with a slight crunch, resulting in a relatively mild taste.
Banana flowers are a nutrient-rich source of high-quality proteins, dietary fibers, and essential vitamins. They also exhibit a favorable soluble and insoluble dietary fiber balance, surpassing many other dietary fiber sources and various vegetables. Additionally, banana flowers show promise as a galactagogue — foods that aid in increasing breast milk production in mothers.
You can often find banana flowers served as a side dish alongside pad Thai, but they also feature in Thai spicy salads like yum hua plee or spicy banana blossom salad. Yum hua plee featuring mud crab, a special chili jam, and lemongrass is served at Paii, The House on Sathorn.
Tips: To prepare banana blossom, remove the outer red layers, then slice the inner layers into wedges and immediately soak them in water with a dash of salt or lime juice. This helps prevent the sap from causing discoloration.
Lotus flowers, with petals that can extend up to 25 cm in shades of pink or rose, are aquatic plants that follow the rhythm of the day, blooming in the morning and closing with the setting sun. Lotus flowers are prominent across various cultures, particularly in Thailand, where they symbolize purity due to their association with Buddhism.
Lotus is celebrated for its numerous health benefits, including remarkable antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties, as well as cardiovascular and anti-bacterial advantages. In the realm of cuisine, lotus flowers offer a subtle, mildly sweet flavor accompanied by a satisfying crunch. Their popularity is gaining worldwide recognition, exemplified by the popularity of lotus flower tea, a unique infusion of dried lotus flowers.
In Thai cuisine, lotus petals are also used in Mieng Kham Bua Lhuang (Lotus petal miang kham), a Thai appetizer with a royal heritage. You can savor this royal treat at the MICHELIN-starred restaurant Suan Thip.
Agasta/Sour Katuri or dok khae
Agasta or Sour Katuri flowers, also known as dok khae (ดอกแค), bloom during the rainy season in Thailand. These flowers are typically ivory white or red, the latter of which tends to be a bit more bitter. They have a charming butterfly-like shape with a hint of mushroomy flavor. Agasta are rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and antioxidants.
In Thai cuisine, you’ll find agasta in gaeng som, a spicy sour curry or soup. “Som” refers to the use of tamarind, which provides the dish with its distinct tartness. To prepare these delicate flowers, one common method is to boil them, as they can be bitter raw. When boiled, they make a perfect pairing with Thai chili paste (nam prik), offering a delightful culinary experience during the rainy season.
For those seeking a more creative gastronomic journey, consider trying the Smoky Southern Yellow Curry with Blue Swimmer Crab, Hummingbird Flowers (Dok Khae), and Thai Samphire at Paste, a MICHELIN-starred restaurant by renowned chef Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun, who earned the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2018.
Sesbania or dok sano
Sesbania or dok sano (ดอกโสน) features charming pea-like flowers with bright yellow, velvety petals and a soft, appealing texture. When consumed raw, these flowers provide a satisfying snap and a sweet, green flavor similar to sweet peas. The pistils are usually removed to reduce bitterness.
Once cooked, sesbania soften, absorbing the flavors of the dish. They’re also packed with nutrients, containing high levels of fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and iron. Additionally, their calcium content is beneficial for maintaining strong and healthy bones.
A great way to enjoy sesbania is in a spicy salad known as larb dok sano. This dish features ground pork and aromatic ground-roasted rice, creating a spicy, sour, and savory dish. You can find a recipe for it on the Daily Dish YouTube Channel.
Cowslip creeper or dok kajorn
Cowslip creeper or dok kajorn (ดอกขจร) in Thai, is frequently featured in various Asian cuisines. These small, golden-yellow flowers are known for their rich and fragrant aroma during their summer bloom. They impart a cooling effect, making them a popular choice for treating heat rash and aiding in sleep.
In Thai cuisine, they play a versatile role, from gaeng som to omelets. A recipe for “Stuffed Cowslip creeper in Plain Soup (Gaeng Jued Dok Kajorn Yud Sai)” can be found on the FoodTravelTVEnglish YouTube Channel.
For a creative spin, try “Stir-Fried Cowslip Creeper with Egg, Glass Noodle, and Shrimp (Dok Kajorn Pad Khai Gung Sod)” at Krua Maneechan, located within the Maneechan Resort in Chanthaburi province. This dish showcases the wonderful flavors and culinary creativity that Cowslip Creeper brings to the table.
Floral sweets: Thai flowers desserts and drinks
Jasmine or mali
Jasmine or mali (มะลิ) is a major symbol of Thai culture and, like the lotus, holds a special place in the hearts of the Thai people (see Thai Mother’s Day). The delicate, subtle aroma of jasmine flowers, small and white with five delicate petals, has a soothing effect, making it a popular choice for aromatherapy to reduce stress and dizziness. Jasmine essential oils also have antiseptic and antibacterial properties.
Beyond its ceremonial and therapeutic uses, jasmine also finds a prominent place in Thai cuisine. One age-old Thai practice involves infusing jasmine flowers in cold water, creating a refreshing beverage that helps combat the sweltering summer heat. Jasmine water is also a key ingredient in Thai desserts like thong yod, made with egg yolk, sugar, and rice flour, crafted into delicate droplet-shaped golden balls.
For tea lovers, renowned Thai tea brands like ChaTraMue offer a variety of jasmine teas. These teas, including jasmine tea and jasmine tea with honey, are made with green tea leaves harvested from the lush Thai mountains, providing an invigorating way to enjoy the essence of jasmine in every cup.
Butterfly pea or dok anchan
Butterfly pea or dok anchan (ดอกอัญชัน) is a flower that resemble a butterfly in flight. The petals are used as a natural dye and can be used to create color-changing tea. Their vivid blue hue transforms into a rich violet when exposed to acid, creating an enchanting tea-drinking experience when combined with lemon or lime.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, butterfly pea is known for antioxidant compounds, particularly anthocyanin, which promotes collagen production. While the blossoms themselves are scentless and flavorless, when enjoyed as a tea, they provide a calming effect and are believed to have potential benefits in alleviating pain and fever.
In Thai cuisine, butterfly pea finds its place as a vibrant food dye, adding its signature blue hue to khanom chan, a delightful layered Thai dessert made with tapioca flour, coconut milk, and sugar. This versatile ingredient has also been used by restaurants like Mae Varee Mango Sticky Rice in Bangkok’s Thong Lor district, to add a captivating blue twist to the beloved dessert dish.
Roselle or kra-jeab daeng
Roselle or kra-jeab daeng (กระเจี๊ยบแดง) is a member of the hibiscus plant family. The flowers typically are sunny yellow, but it’s the reddish calyces, resembling fleshy cups, that are most sought after. These calyces encase the plant’s seeds and are packed with citrusy goodness. Kra-jeab daeng should not be confused with the Thai word for okra, kra-jeab.
One of roselle’s main benefits is its high vitamin C content, making it a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent commonly used in the treatment of urinary tract infections. Polyphenol-rich extracts of roselle have also been associated with reducing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
In Thailand, roselle is transformed into a refreshing drink by boiling dried roselle calyces and straining the water to create a sweet and sour juice. This beverage, served chilled over ice, is cherished during Thailand’s hot seasons. However, it’s important to consume roselle juice in moderation due to its laxative effects.
Beyond beverages, roselle functions as a natural red food dye and can be processed into roselle jam. In a culinary twist, roselle has been used to craft a no-churn roselle sorbet, a recipe discovered at AnnaVilla.
The ingenuity of Thailand’s floral cuisine
Edible flowers exemplify the ingenuity of Thai culture in harnessing the benefits of nature and utilizing every part of the plant, from their roots and stems to their leaves and flowers. These flowers are just a glimpse of the many blossoms and herbs that make up a dazzling array of Thai cuisine.
In an era marked by a growing focus on sustainable diets and heightened environmental awareness, the choice to embrace veganism is gaining popularity. Edible flowers stand as an exciting addition to the ingredients available for crafting creative vegan dishes.
Renowned as the culinary hub, Thailand is synonymous with high-quality ingredients. By drawing upon its traditional wisdom and abundant resources, the Southeast Asian country can pave the path for the world’s sustainable food solutions.