Butterfly Pea Flower: Food and Medicine in Native Thai Beauty
For many of our customers it was their first experience with butterfly pea flowerwhen we introduced it at the local farmers’ markets in the Los Angeles area this past year. Being that close to our customers is an opportunity to educate people on both the simplicity yet beneficial properties of this native Thai beauty. Fun also is watching the reactions of moms, dads, and kids when a squirt of lemon goes into the vivid blue brew changes it to a bright pink-purplish concoction. Soon enough news of eyesight improving, skin clearing up, and instantaneous energy boosting was coming back to us. We had no doubt people would come to appreciate butterfly pea flower as much as us Thais.
And long before research was conducted on butterfly pea flower (clitoria ternatea) and found to be rich in free-radical fighting antioxidants, Thais discovered its many uses, from beauty to cooking. We’ll rub freshly picked flowers on our faces to thicken our eyebrows; boil it with lemongrass and serve tea to guests; and dye light-colored grains like rice, snacks, and desserts much needed to douse the heat of spicy food lingering on the palate. We’ll even fry fresh butterfly pea flower dipped in a light batter for a Thai version of tempura. But instead of regurgitating general information of its origin (Southeast Asia), its characteristics which is all over the internet, and its Ayurvedic applications - including memory enhancement, calming down the nerves, and lowering blood sugar levels – we would rather delve a little bit into butterfly pea flower’s role in Thai culture.
As with any effort to describe or understand a culture, one has to look to its cuisine. It’s true food should also look as good as it tastes. This means a typical Thai recipe will call for balance in flavors and variety in texture. It should also be pretty. As a result of this exercise, you get a course of dishes that include quality ingredients whose colors cover the rainbow, with each plate often decorated with an intricately carved fruit or vegetable to not only enhance visual appeal, but to also invite the diner to take in the care, detail, and heart that went into the dish. One of those ingredients is the dainty butterfly pea flower, of which the fresh form is often placed atop an entrée or dessert as a decorative (and edible) garnish..
To this day Thais continue to rely on coloring and food presentation from fresh herbs, spices, leaves, and flowers. It is the leaves of the chili pepper plant that get mashed into a curry paste and gives our “green curry” the color of its namesake. Pandan leaves are used for both coloring and flavoring tapioca flour and coconut milk based sweets and desserts. Sappan wood boiled in water creates an almost neon shade of pink that opens up an array of possibilities in the culinary world. And then you have butterfly pea flowertaking the helm of the blue hue arena. With the double flower blue varietal of butterfly pea flower being the most prevalent in Thailand, the natural color extracted from the flower is a mesmerizing vibrant blue, driving the notion that we humans “eat first with our eyes”. Who doesn’t want to gobble down mango and blue sweet sticky rice as a palate-cleansing last course? Or how about swirls of coconut milk and butterfly pea flower extract in a gelatinous snack or pudding? Adding blue, a color not commonly found in whole foods, not only offers another inviting mix to the plate, it also breaks up the visual monotony of what we often associate with healthier foods.
Beating the Heat
Thailand is hot. Period. It’s not just a matter of chugging gallons of water to try to beat the heat. Don’t get us wrong. It’s a good start to meet the recommended daily intake of fluids, especially in the tropics where the humidity is fabulous for those suffering from dry skin. But it can also zap the energy out of you. We need other forms of sustenance.
When we’re thinking about what to eat to satiate a craving, we also look to see how it affects us physically in terms of body temperature. Turning to whole foods, of which we have an abundance of given our natural resources - from rice fields to dense jungles and long coastlines - for the treatment of common ailments is almost second nature to Thais.
We know we’ve consumed too much sodium, preserved foods, or alcohol if a mouth blister appears; if we’re feeling flushed; if the tip of the tongue is a bit sensitive; or if a bout of constipation is making its round. Some exotic fruits such as super sweet longan (ลำไย), juicy jackfruit, and pungent durian can also cause body temperature to rise. That is why tangy temperature-reducing mangosteen is often consumed to counter their heat-inducing affects. But eat too much mangosteen at once and you could come down with the sniffles. Exotic fruits can be extreme that way. It’s a good thing then when most of these mouthwatering curious-looking tropical fruits are in season at the same time.
Foods that are usually bitter, sour, or plain tasting reduce body temperature. But if you’re not a big fan of bitter melon soup, strong-flavored ginseng tea; or have no idea how to make use of pandan leaf extract, then a soothing blue beverage, as in butterfly pea flower tea, may be the heat-reducing elixir for you.
In studies it has been found that in large doses (200 – 400 milligrams in concentrated form), butterfly pea flower has a similar affect to acetaminophen (paracetemol) found in cold medication to treat pain and fever. But drinking butterfly pea flower tea or consuming it regularly in one form or another - fresh, dried, powder - should also allow you to reap butterfly pea flower’s other pharmacological benefits that include treating stress and anxiety; lowering cholesterol; and flushing out toxins. Because it is also naturally caffeine-free with a neutral or subtle earthy taste, it can be mixed into your favorite food and beverage recipes while keeping you cool and calm at the same time.
So thank you, Miss Butterfly Pea Flower. You’re giving us many reasons to love you to the blue moon and back.
I grew up in L.A. and Ventura on a diet of both Thai and Western food. I watched and sometimes helped Mom make coconut milk from scratch back in the days when very few ancient ingredients were available. Burnt myself a few times, not from cooking, but from horsing around too much in the kitchen of her restaurant in Hollywood. I have to scars to show it too.
I now spend time in both Thailand on our family farm, and the U.S. where we bring to you good stuff from the tropics.
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