Yendy Tsang investigates the wonderful world of edible flowers in Vietnam. Photo by Romain Garrigue.
Vietnam’s long history of turmoil has meant that home cooks have had to be very creative to feed their family, especially in times of famine and near-famine.
All kinds of unusual plants and animals have found their way into cooking pots, including snails, frogs and a vast selection of weeds and greens.
There are also more colourful items – flowers.
Here’s a look at which flowers can be your great partners on the plate and where can you get them.
Most edible flowers are available at local wet markets, and can be used straight away. Some flowers, such as banana blossom can be eaten raw for a lovely fresh taste.
However, not all flowers sold in the markets are safe. Many are imported from China and are sprayed with chemicals and insecticides. It’s best to buy flowers from a reliable source, or from a local grocery store.
Here are seven edible flowers that are available in Saigon.
Pumpkin flower (bong bi)
These yellow flowers are big enough to be stuffed. They can then be used in soup, or just simply fried with garlic and beef.
Pumpkin flowers are high in nutrition and are believed to protect blood vessels and increase brain function.
Garlic chive flowers (bong he)
These are small white flowers at the end of long thin stalks, with a strong garlic/onion flavour. Garlic chive flowers can be used in Asian or European dishes, and can even be used as “string” to secure the top of a dumpling. Garlic chives also work well stir-fried with beef.
Vietnamese water lily (bong sung)
These pretty flowers have a very mild flavour, and are often added to hotpots. Another traditional Vietnamese dish is a water lily salad (goi bong sung), usually mixed with pork and prawn.
Bong so dua
Which doesn’t have a common English name and is usually referred to by its Latin name sesbania grandiflora: The tropical flowers mainly grow in Southeast Asia, including in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
So Dua flowers are usually white and wing-shaped and are most often used in canh chua (sour soup). The sweet flavour of so dua can help counter the sourness of the tamarind in the soup.
Camilla Bailey, owner of Mad House in District 2, has been using edible flowers in Europe and Asia for more than 15 years. She recommends using so dua quickly, as they turn brown soon after being picked. Camilla also recommends removing the flower stems and bitter pistils before cooking.
Tonkin jasmine (bong thien ly)
These fragrant flowers are native to China and are famous for the rich purfume they release at night.
Each bouquet of Tonkin jasmine has many tiny greenish-yellow flowers. They are used in variety of dishes, as their sweet taste goes well with many other flavours. Try them simply, stir-fried with garlic, in canh chua sour soup or fried with beef.
Banana blossom (hoa chuoi)
The banana blossom is the large purple tear-shaped bud that, if left, will form a bunch of bananas. In Vietnam, shredded banana flower is most often eaten raw, in a salad. Many Vietnamese soups, including bun moc, bun rieu and bun bo Hue, are served with a side dish of shredded banana flower and rau muong (water spinach), which is added to the soup at the last minute so it wilts slightly. Banana flower is also often added to hotpots. Banana flower has a very dry flavour and “if you eat it alone, you have to drink a lot of water,” Camilla said. “It’s definitely best if you eat it with fish sauce and some soft noodles.”
Dien dien (sesbania sesben)
The small yellow dien dien flowers come from the Mekong Delta. They are usually harvested during the rainy season, and have a sweet but bitter taste that works well in hotpots. Another traditional dish that uses the dien dien flower is dua chua dien dien (pickled dien dien flowers).
By marinating the flowers with rice water (the water that’s left after washing rice), salt and sugar for few days, you can enjoy another simple and tasty dish.
Many other uses
Flowers are not just used in main dishes, but also for desserts, especially in European cuisine, where presentation is important.
Mad House’s Camilla loves using flowers in cooking, and she says she reserves her big love for hibiscus flowers.
Red hibiscus flowers have a sweet cranberry-like flavour with a bitter aftertaste. They are the perfect choice for tarts, sweets, cocktails and even teas.
“Hibiscus and jasmine both have the bitter and rich aroma when it comes to tea,” Camilla said. “However, I would say I prefer hibiscus because the flavour of jasmine is too dominant while the bitterness of hibiscus is more gentle and `romantic’.”
Camilla advised people to take care when buying flowers for food.
“Don’t get flowers from florists, since they’re sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals,” she said. Sprayed flowers are poisonous, so if you import flowers from the farm, make sure they don’t spray anything to the flowers.
For home-cooking, find the most reliable groceries for fresh flowers. If you’re in need of European flowers, look into buying dried ones instead of the fresh to make sure they aren’t sprayed.
Moreover, you should be tender and soft when washing flowers, Camilla said. “The flowers are so gentle. If you wash them, shake them and dry them, they will break,” she said.
If you’re nervous about cooking flowers yourself, and you don’t know any Vietnamese home cooks who can cook them for you, you can get an overview of some of the local flower flavours at Pizza 4Ps, which serves a four flowers pizza with Tokin jasmine, pumpkin flowers, leek flowers and daylillies.