If I had to pick only one ingredient to represent Malaysian gastronomy, it would be the bunga kantan. The torch ginger flower has a special place in our collective heart and taste buds, wired into our psyche with our first taste of asam laksa and nasi ulam. Even haters cannot deny its powerful presence.
Bunga kantan is what gives many iconic Malaysian dishes their distinctive taste: asam laksa, nonya laksa, asam pedas, nasi ulam, nasi kerabu and the numerous kerabu salads. Unlike the chilli, it is a truly local ingredient. It grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions, from Hawaii to Congo and the Philippines, but it is native to Malaysia and Indonesia.
The torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) is one of the rainforest’s most spectacular blooms. The flowers are pink, red or white. The pink variety is the most floriferous and bears more flowers – that’s why it’s more common than the red while the white is quite rare. Market vendors will tell you that the larger redder variety is usually from Indonesia or Thailand. And if you find the bunga kantan hard to come by sometimes, it’s because it has a season of a sort. May is the peak season when it’s plentiful and cheap. From August through October, supply is limited and hence the higher prices. That’s also when you’ll find more red buds in the market.
Although the unopened flower, the bud, is the most commonly used part in cooking, the whole plant is edible: leaf, flower, fruit and seed. Its deeper culinary secrets lie with the natives living in and around the rainforest.
In Sarawak, the Kelabits cook with the inner buds of the opened blossom, using it like a vegetable in stir-fries. The leaf can be used in the same way as turmeric leaf. The fruit, known as buah kechala – the Iban name for torch ginger – is also edible and used in cooking. Inside the individual pods that make up the fruit are pulp-coated seeds – like passion fruit pulp – capable of exploding in the mouth with a sour sensation.
We call it “bud” but the “petals” that make up the bud are not the actual flower; they are the bracts that protect the tiny true flowers that emerge later, in rings between the rows of bracts over the course of the 50 to 60 days that the plant will take to complete the spectacular blooming ritual.
In gastronomy its identity is forged mostly in the Malay archipelago, the Nusantara region. In southern Thailand it’s served with nam prik sauce as part of a raw salad (ulam) and spices up khao jam, a rice salad that shares similar roots with the Malaysian nasi kerabu. Chef Korn Yodsuk of Erawan restaurant in Kuala Lumpur considers the bunga kantan more of a Malaysian spice. “We don’t use it a lot in Thai cooking. Just a few dishes in the south make use of the torch ginger; we use it more as cut flowers.”
This beautiful flower is associated with love – you cannot deny the phallic shape of the blushing bud. Korn shares that in Thailand the torch ginger is a symbol of cross-cultural love. When parental objections kept a Thai lad and Malay lass apart, the girl famously vowed that even after death, she’d return as a torch ginger flower to wait for him at the border gate.
Torch ginger buds are typically finely sliced and eaten raw as part of an aromatic garnish for salads and rice, or tossed into sour soups and curries. It’s traditionally paired with fish and seafood rather than meat, although it makes an inspired pairing with smoked beef or duck. But it’s really fish’s best friend as the citrusy and gingery flavours exalt the taste of fish and mask fishy odours.
In the Malay kitchen the bunga kantan is an everyday herb, spicing up hot and sour fish, kerabu salads, herbed rice and laksa. It is regarded as the soul of Peranakan cuisine, lending its nuanced citrusy floral notes to a rich and celebrated culinary tradition.
In Indonesia, it’s used as an aromatic and vegetable. Kecombrang finds its way into various salads like urap and pecel. In Bali, kecombrang adds punch to the basic sambal matah dip, the relish at every meal. In Jakarta it animates the street food, rujak. In Singapore it is called “rojak flower” for the same reason.
These days, there’s an experimental spirit in the kitchen and non-conventional ways of using the torch ginger have emerged. Chris Salans of Mozaic in Bali finds that it works beautifully in desserts such as ice cream and sorbet. Dewakan’s Darren Teoh is working to obtain its essential oil for use in tea offerings at his Glenmarie restaurant. “We regularly use it, fresh as well as pickled, like in a prawn umai with herbs and dried coconut.”
Perhaps its most exciting use can be found among the city’s innovative bars. At Kuala Lumpur’s cooler bars you don’t ask for a mojito but a bunga kantan mojito. Botak Liquor’s bunga kantan and pumpkin cocktail has been hailed as the year’s most exotic cocktail combo. The laksa cocktail is a popular take – 23aubergine and Lou Shang Bar have their versions. Mixologist Ashish Sharma at the new Bar Trigona at the Four Seasons KL makes sure there’s a torch ginger cocktail on his menu and Jack Rose’s award winning mixologist David Hans sums it up perfectly when he says the bunga kantan is “a signature to local flavour”.
All recipes by Julie Wong
GENIUS SENGKUANG CALIT
This recipe hack lets you prepare a forgotten street snack at home in two shakes. It also gets an update with bunga kantan.
1 medium sengkuang (yambean or jicama)
100g roasted peanuts, crushed
1 bunga kantan bud (torch ginger), halved and finely sliced
3 cubes red preserved beancurd
1 tbsp pure peanut butter
1 tbsp shaoxing rice wine (optional)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tbsp honey or grated palm sugar
50g dried chilli paste (cili boh)
salt and sugar to taste
1-2 tbsp palm oil
To make aroma paste
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix well, seasoning to taste. Aim for a spreading consistency – not too thick or runny. Adjust thickness by adding more or less peanut butter. This keeps well in the fridge sealed in a glass jar.
To make chilli paste
Blend all the ingredients into a paste and stir over medium low heat until aromatic and slightly dry. This keeps well in the fridge sealed in a glass jar.
Peel and slice sengkuang no thicker than 1cm-3/4cm is perfect. Using a dinner spoon, scoop a little chilli paste and a bit more aroma paste on a slice of sengkuang. Use the back of the spoon to spread it around evenly, using a circular motion. Sprinkle generously with crushed peanuts and top with bunga kantan. For a non-spicy version, omit the chilli paste.
It’s nice to serve the sengkuang chilled. Squeeze over some lime or calamansi lime juice if you like. Freshly roasted peanuts will make all the difference. You can also make pineapple calit.
BUNGA KANTAN & NANGKA MUDA MASAK PUTIH
Try cooking bunga kantan like a vegetable. For this recipe, choose flower buds that are more open. These are slightly more tart, less fibrous, less astringent and better for eating. The dish has a gentle sour note and floral scent from the bunga kantan.
400g nangka muda (unripe jackfruit)
4 stalks bunga kantan (torch ginger bud)
2 tbsp coconut oil or palm oil
2 stalks lemongrass, crushed
1 small turmeric leaf, crushed
300ml thin coconut milk
200ml thick coconut milk
8-10 green cili padi (bird’s eye chilli)
salt and sugar to taste
2 garlic cloves
2-3 slices ginger
2-3 slices galangal
1 tsp belacan granules
Cut jackfruit into wedges and boil for 5 minutes and strain. Remove stalks from bunga kantan. Peel away the tougher outside petals and cut into quarters.
Heat oil in a wok and fry the spice paste and lemongrass until aromatic without browning. Add pandan leaf, turmeric leaf, thin coconut milk, jackfruit, bunga kantan and cili padi. Bring to the boil then cook on medium low heat until jackfruit is tender but still firm, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Add thick coconut milk and cook for 5 minutes more on low heat.
Variation: Replace jackfruit with tempeh, white fish, chicken or prawn; adjust the cooking time for each ingredient as necessary.
My go-to local quick salad lightened and refreshed with bunga kantan and crispy green apple. The pegaga can be subbed with ulam raja (cosmos) or even kale.
50g pegaga (pennywort), sliced finely
1 green apple, cut into matchsticks
½ bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), sliced finely
6-8 shallots, sliced thinly
6-8 green cili padi (bird’s eye chilli), sliced thinly
4 heaped tbsp freshly grated coconut
2 tbsp lime or calamansi juice
2 tsp sugar or to taste
1 tsp salt or to taste
Just before serving, toss everything together in a salad bowl, seasoning to taste. Give it a few good scrunches with the hand to break down the pegaga and bunga kantan slightly – it’s like how kale tastes so much better with a little massage. Enjoy.