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Ruminations On Food 3: An Ode to Petai…

I hope you’re all enjoying the festive season. To celebrate, I bought a copy of the National Geographic Food magazine and was browsing through it when the words ‘butterfly pea’ caught my eye. This distinctively blue flower is used in Southeast Asian cuisine, but it isn’t exactly a household staple. What was butterfly pea doing in the National Geographic?

Colouring tea, it seems. Butterfly pea tea? You bet, and in bags too!

Butterfly Pea Tea in National Geographic Food

#bluetea is apparently gaining in popularity. To date, the hashtag has garnered 9,211 posts on Instagram. National Geographic Food helpfully tells us that adding lemon to the blue-coloured tea turns it pink. If only they had shown a cup of pink tea!

The butterfly pea flower is mentioned in my novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, where the protagonist, who is a chef, uses it to colour one of her cakes. Here’s an interesting fact: the butterfly pea has a scientific name, which alas is clitoria ternatea. You can see why I don’t say this in my book! National Geographic doesn’t mention it, either. Instead, the magazine highlights the butterfly pea’s antioxidant properties.

Which begs an intriguing question: if a plant as innocuous as the butterfly (or blue) pea can have useful health properties, what future might there be in world cuisine for Malaysia’s more potent plants and vegetables?

And there is an incredible variety of these, starting with my favourite legume, called petai in Malay, stinking bean in Chinese. This vegetable looks harmless, though its effects are anything but. Here’s a link to an image of petai uncooked, but do not be deceived. This is not just another broad bean; it’s a natural chemical weapon, transforming those who consume it into human stink bombs.

Unlike strong-smelling cheeses (reblochon being an example), petai doesn’t smell in its raw state (when inside the pod). It’s only after it’s cooked that the bean starts to become interesting. And then, when petai has been eaten and properly digested, its full force is unleashed. What goes in must come out, and petai re-emerges as a unique aroma oozing out of your every pore and orifice. For the next few days, people around you will smell petai on your skin and on your breath and elsewhere too. I describe this in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds:

Normally stir-fried in a sambal paste, petai is best known for the pungent aroma it leaves in the room – and in latrines afterwards.”

Below is what a dish of petai in a sambal looks like. If you’re not familiar with sambal, this is a delicious spicy sauce, and it’s beloved in Southeast Asia (here’s the Wikipedia entry).

Petai in Sambal

A plant as powerful as petai must surely have significant nutritional value. Searching on Google led me to the plant’s scientific name – parkia speciosa – and a flood of speculation. Petai is apparently high in antioxidants, potassium, carbohydrates and fibre and is said to be helpful for depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, anaemia, blood pressure, brain power, hangovers and loads more besides. Really? Could any single food possibly cure so many ills? Universal panaceas make me nervous, even though my intuition tells me that petai probably does have much unharnessed nutritional value.

The actual smell of petai is difficult to describe. I don’t think of it as pleasant or unpleasant, but it is peculiar. If you come across a distinctive smell that you can’t place and it’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, it may be petai!

Last week someone at a book talk I gave asked whether I had any food cravings, and I’d forgotten about petai. This is truly the only Malaysian food I suffer cravings for. Every few weeks I need a fix. For obvious reasons I must time my intake carefully, and this has led me to make a few rules.

  1. Don’t eat petai unless you’re going home afterwards (or to a Malaysian house).
  2. Never eat petai before flying.
  3. Abstain fully during a PR campaign!

The one person who has to put up with my petai obsession is my long-suffering partner. Once, I stir-fried petai in a garlic and sambal sauce without warning her beforehand. I thought it would be enough if I took extra care by closing the kitchen doors while I cooked and giving the kitchen a good airing afterwards. Alas, where Malaysia’s most potent foods is concerned, such efforts are for nought. As soon as my partner stepped inside the house she gave me an odd look, muttered ‘Oh my God, it’s petai’ and flew around opening every window!

Despite such perils, I know of 3 Malaysian restaurants in London that serve petai. For hard core aficionados, the C&R Café in Soho would be the place. There, they serve the petai beans whole (instead of halving them) in a cuttlefish sambal. If you eat petai here, everyone will know what you’ve been up to – this is the Real McCoy. Don’t expect much service, though; you come here for food. I also like Satay House in Paddington – the oldest Malaysian restaurant in London and still going strong. However, the portions here are smaller: there’s a lot less petai for your pound, and the beans are smaller too. But it’s worth a visit just for the smiles. When I’m really desperate, I end up at Rasa Sayang in Soho. Here you don’t get much petai, and the beans are halved and as small as those in Satay House. If you want to try petai this may be a good choice: for some reason the petai here is less smelly. Perhaps they soak them in water beforehand.

If you asked why I like petai so much, I couldn’t really tell you. My craving has something to do with the bean’s texture, its pungency and its utterly inimitable taste. There must be an emotional aspect, too, in the way the taste reminds me of my Malaysian childhood.

Gotta Have ‘Em Juicy Petai!

What’s clear is that when I haven’t eaten petai for a while – as is the case at this very moment – I start to miss it. At the risk of sounding like a crazed addict, I will confess that I can already feel myself approaching a tipping point, after which I’m bound to go a little cranky. As I write this I’m in Florida, where there’s no petai to be found. So I know exactly what I’ll be eating when I land in London! With that delightful prospect in mind, here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year! And please do share your food cravings with me!


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia