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Homesocial-and-lifestyleThe unsung heroes of Thai cuisine

The unsung heroes of Thai cuisine

Thailand is a land of culinary abundance. The old saying nai nahm mee pla nai na mee khao meaning "there are fish in the water and rice in the field" has long remained true considering the country's strong food security.

Fish and rice are the most recognised epitome of our gastronomic stability. But in the same type of wetlands, there’s also bua, another aquatic product that is less mentioned but is as prevalent in local cooking.

Bua is what Thais refer to lotus and water lily.

In Thai Buddhist culture, lotus, locally known as bua luang or bua chat, has a strong significance as a symbol of spiritual awakening. Its flowers — with white or pink paper-like petals — are offered to the Buddha to represent purity and faithfulness.

Water lily, meanwhile, is treasured for its beauty. Its flowers have thick and waxy petals and can be red, pink, yellow, white, purple or blue. Water lily stems are among the most common ingredients in Thai kitchens.

In fact, both lotus and water lilies, which are found in wetlands throughout the country, are loved as a food source.

Yielding various edible and nutritious parts — from roots and rhizomes to stems, leaves, petals, pollens and seeds — bua can provide nutrition year round.

Miang kleep bua by Omjan Pryphun.

Thanks to their perenniality and an ability to quickly re-sprout following drought conditions, having a pond of lotus or water lilies means you have food stability for life.

“Bua is a very versatile ingredient that has forever been staple in our culinary tradition,” said Michelin-starred chef Vichit Mukura, one of the country’s most esteemed authorities in Thai cuisine.

“You can cook numerous dishes with different parts of lotus or water lilies as a centrepiece without producing a repetitive flavour, scent or texture.

“Each part of bua serves a unique culinary purpose, so they are valued accordingly.”

The most common part of bua for cooking is the stem, which comes from a water lily. Lotus stems are not eaten because they are hard and have thorny skin.

“You can tell whether the stem is ready for collecting by its flower. The flower should still be in a bud shape. If the flower is at full bloom, it means the stem is too old,” chef Vichit explained.

Dessert made with lotus seeds at Royal Osha Restaurant.

Water lily stems have a fine fibrous exterior and should be peeled by hand. Perfect stems can be identified by a popping sound when broken.

Sai bua phad goong, or stir-fried water lily stems with shrimp, and sai bua tom pla thu, or simmered water lily stems with mackerel in coconut milk, are the most popular recipes. The dishes are very common in households and can also be found in many Thai restaurants.

“In the countryside, there’s an old-fashioned dessert very similar to khanom kluay [steamed banana cake] but prepared with water lily stems,” chef Vichit said.

It is made by mincing water lily stems and kneading it with flour and coconut cream before steaming in banana leaf. The delicious dessert is rarely served nowadays.

Vichit said sai bua can also be eaten raw. The fresh stem has a uniquely crunchy, light and spongy texture. They can be used in a yum (Thai-styled salad) or as a fresh accompaniment to nahm phrik (chilli relish).

Not to be confused with sai bua is lai bua, the rhizome of lotus, another favourite delicacy among Thais.

Mildly fragrant lotus pollen used for tea.

Also known as lotus runners, they are the thin and lengthy, creamy-hued creeping rootstalks that grow horizontally under the mud.

Compared to stems which turn soft easily when cooked, runners are much sturdier and crunchier.

They can be used in gaeng som lai bua, or sour and spicy curry with fish or shrimp, and stir-fried with seafood and herbs. In present-day cuisine, raw runners are widely used as a substitute for green papaya in som tam.

Rak bua, or lotus root, may not be seen as much in traditional Thai cuisine as in Chinese cooking, but it is regarded as a quintessential delicacy of southern Thailand, especially in Sathing Phra district of Songkhla province.

“Rak bua is not just food, it’s our way of life,” said cultural scholar and a Sathing Phra native Ladawan Mungsri.

“In drought season, people in Sathing Phra travel to dried marshes, swamps or ponds in search of young lotus roots, which rest approximately 60cm underground.”

Candied lotus roots in Sathing Phra district, Songkhla.

According to her, the muddy pink-coloured roots, slightly bigger than a thumb, are carefully dug up from the soil as if they were gems.

Then they are thoroughly cleaned, peeled and cut into 5cm length sections before being boiled with sugar, honey and coconut milk until developing a caramelised coating.

The chewy candied lotus roots, skewered and served on a stick, look and taste quite similar to candied lady finger banana and are popular winter snacks in the region.

Over recent years, dishes prepared with lotus petals have been a gorgeous representative of Thai cuisine.

Omjan Pryphun, a journalist-turned-food entrepreneur, is among those who helped push lotus petal to the forefront.

Six years ago, she posted photos of her homemade dish miang kleep bua on social media.

Miang kleep bua by Omjan Pryphun.

Instead of typical betel leaves, which have a strong scent and flavour, she opted for mild-tasting lotus petals collected from her family’s backyard pond.

The photos began to cultivate orders from friends. From a dozen boxes at the start, she is now daily making 80 boxes of miang kleep bua.

“I believe the reason why the dish has become so popular is because it offers the unexpected palatability of a low-key ingredient as well as medicinal values. And lotus petals also represent the visual grace of Thai cuisine,” Omjan said.

The lotus petals are believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. They also lower blood sugar levels and help soothe anxiety.

“I love the dish simply for the sweet scent of the petals. Eating them always brings me joy.”

A by-product of the flowers, lotus pollen or gaysorn bua, is also edible.

It can be eaten fresh as a part of a salad or dried and made into a fragrant tea blend.

“Some of my customers have requested I include the pollen in their miang kleep bua sets,” Omjan noted.

Lotus leaves are widely known as a natural material for food packaging because of its water-proof property and unique fragrance.

However, very few people realise they are also edible.

According to chef Vichit, the tender lotus leaves — young and in a rolled-up shape — can be eaten fresh or boiled or stir-fried with meat or egg just like any green leafy vegetable.

With a scrumptious nut-like character, lotus seeds also have long been a common local snack enjoyed by people of all ages.

They may come sun-dried, toasted, candied, boiled or in a sweet paste, and make a crunchy topping for desserts, or even savoury dishes.

However, unless you grew up in the countryside or are over 40, you may not fancy having the raw lotus seeds from fresh green pods as a treat.

In fact, the centre core of the seed which tastes bitter is very beneficial for health, especially the heart. It is anti-spasmodic and believed to induce a calming effect and promote sleep.

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