by Claire Cella
While living and teaching in Thailand, I learned that it was common practice for Thai students to go by nicknames. I immediately appreciated this when, glancing down my class roster to call attendance, I was greeted by names such as Wannaporn Sukcharoen, Kanokwan Charoenwikkai and Bordeesorn Kunlanantakun. All I had to ask, however, was “Fah?” “New?” “Mind?”
Even though my name is comparatively much less complex, my new Thai friends insisted upon christening me with a nickname, as well. They threw around ideas until finally deciding upon dok khae (pronounced “daw care”), and eagerly explained that it’s a type of flower—Sesbania grandiflora to be exact—also known as agati, hummingbird tree or scarlet wisteria in English. This tropical plant is native to Southeast Asia and northern Australia, flourishing in the rich soil and sweltering surrounds. The leaves resemble the broad fans of ferns and the oblong flower buds are creamy white and sometimes even vibrant red. What’s more, they’re edible.
“Edible?” I inquired with raised eyebrows.
“Yes,” my friends exclaimed with enthusiastic head nods, “Gin dai!” (“Can eat!”). The flower buds are cooked in dishes such as kaeng som (a remarkably sour fish curry) and kaeng khae (a flavorful, vegetable-laden northern curry). They’re also steamed and served with nam phrik (a spicy chili paste) or enjoyed, as many things are in Thailand, battered and fried. I must have still looked skeptical, because my friends quickly grabbed my hand and led me to the nearest roadside market, where, behold, my namesakes lay piled upon a vendor’s reed table.
It didn’t take long for me to start noticing that flowers are used extensively in broader Asian cuisine. On a weekend trip to Bangkok shortly thereafter, I was dared to eat the fried purple petals of an orchid. And when I ventured to nearby Vietnam, I fell in love with a salad made from the inner petals of deep magenta banana blossoms soaked in a bath of sweet, citrusy, spiced marinade and layered between slivers of onion, carrot, pepper and unripe papaya.
With a little more research, I discovered flowers in most regions of the world are often more at home in a pot or wok than in a vase. While petals and buds in American cuisine usually accept the role of playful, bright garnishes mostly meant to be admired, these same blossoms take center plate in many other cultures.
North of Thailand, the Chinese are known for the golden needle vegetable, which, although termed a vegetable, is actually the edible bud of the daylily. In Hong Kong, it’s called gum jum choi, while further into mainland China, it goes by huang hua cai. Golden needle vegetables are most commonly found dried in Chinese markets and stores, so that when used in stir-fries or soups, they’re first steeped in water. They’re often cooked with cloud ear (an edible fungus that grows on trees), shredded pork, scrambled eggs and peanut oil in a sizzling wok to make the classic Chinese dish moo shu pork.
Traveling along the Silk Road, the famous trade route that connects parts of Asia to the Mediterranean Sea, one can find another classic, cultural dish that utilizes the flavor of flowers—one flower, in particular. In Persian and Middle-Eastern cuisines, the rose takes liquid form in rosewater and is used to give the beloved confection, Turkish delight, its distinct and aromatic quality. It’s also poured over baklava and splashed on rice pudding, bringing out the floral notes in cinnamon and honey.
Italians are known to harvest the delicate clusters of black locust, or acacia honey, blossoms in the spring in order to coat them in a pastella—a simple batter of flour, water, oil and salt—and deep-fry them. Sprinkled with sugar, these frittered petals, called fritelle di fiori d’acacia, taste like little kernels of lavender. They also fry fiori di zucca, or zucchini blossoms, or stuff the golden pockets with various cheeses, herbs and seafood for roasting. In fact, in Italy the zucchini blossom has come to be synonymous with the splendors of summer and is arguably more adored than the vegetable itself.
South Africans harvest flowers for their kitchens in late summer. Before blooming, native waterblommetjies (little water flowers), likened to a citrusy cousin of the green bean or a more subtle artichoke, are plucked from ponds, marshes and swamps along the Western Cape to be included in the seasonal stew, waterblommetjie bredie. Traditionally, the waterblommetjies are simmered in a cast iron pot over a fire for several hours with lamb, potatoes, onions, wild sorrel and white wine before being ladled over rice. In the book “Edible and Medicinal Flowers,” author Margaret Roberts writes that the early Dutch settlers learned to use the waterblommetjies from the indigenous Khoikhoi people, who used the plant as food, but also for medicinal purposes: The juice from the stems was used to soothe burns, sunburns, grazes, sores, bites and rashes, and, after washing in warm water, the leaves were applied directly to inflamed areas such as sprains or bruises.
Closer to home, the loroco vine (Fernaldia pandurata) flourishes in the hot valleys of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the distinct and pungent flavor of its flowers and vine, similar to that of asparagus tips, defines the pupusa—the national dish of El Salvador. Similar to a Mexican gordita, a pupusa is a thick corn tortilla stuffed with a blend of soft cheese, refried beans, slow-cooked pork and loroco.
I often reminisce about my Thai nickname and my friends, and I sometimes wonder why they chose that name—which they all said was utterly perfect for me. I’d like to think it was in honor of my versatility in living in, and fully engaging in, a different culture and culinary practice.
If you’d like to taste a flower for yourself, there are ample opportunities to do so locally. Green Gate Farms runs a flower CSA program, in which members receive handpicked edible bouquets weekly. The bouquets are meant to be placed at the center of the table—as bright and beautiful focal points to be admired but also pulled from, used and eaten. Winfield Farm grows flowers on its Red Rock farm to distribute to local restaurants such as TRACE, Barley Swine and Odd Duck, so look for nasturtiums, cilantro blossoms, verbena, violets and pansies on menus or, even better, on your dinner plate.