The torch ginger bud is an al­chemist’s magic wand, con­jur­ing up cit­rus fruit, gingers, flow­ers and grass in a blink


The torch ginger bud is an al­chemist’s magic wand, con­jur­ing up cit­rus fruit, gingers, flow­ers and grass in a blink

Few other Asian aro­matic herbs come close to the torch ginger bud in terms of per­fumed com­plex­ity. It’s a beauty too, whether tightly closed at the bud stage or fully opened up into a thou­sand crim­son petals. It’s that scent that makes us call out laksa—voted one of the world’s best foods—and nasi ulam. If poly­gonum is laksa leaf, torch ginger is laksa flower. In Sin­ga­pore it’s also ro­jak flower as it’s a re­ally pop­u­lar top­ping for the spicy fruit salad.

It grows in trop­i­cal and sub-trop­i­cal re­gions, from Hawaii to Congo and the Philip­pines, but it is na­tive to south­ern Thai­land, Malaysia and In­done­sia. Where it’s an in­tro­duced species, it’s grown mostly as cut flow­ers, ex­ported to the world’s cap­i­tal cities as ex­pen­sive, ex­otic blooms for or­na­men­tal use.

Also known as Etlingera Ela­tior, it is one of the rain­for­est’s most spec­tac­u­lar blos­soms. The genus is named af­ter Ger­man botanist An­dreas Ernst Etlinger while the spe­cific name Ela­tior, in Latin means “tall”. Grow­ing in clumps, the leaf stems shoot out straight and tall from the ground to a height of seven me­tres. The bi­sex­ual flow­ers come at the end of a long stem, like a torch.

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. The white va­ri­ety, mean­while, is quite rare.

In gas­tron­omy, its iden­tity is forged mostly in its na­tive land in the Malay Ar­chi­pel­ago, the Nu­san­tara re­gion. It goes un­der var­i­ous names: torch ginger lily, kaalaa, kechala, bunga kan­tan, siantan, ke­com­brang, honje, etc.

In south­ern Thai­land, it’s served with nam prik dip­ping sauce as part of a raw salad and it spices up khao jam, a rice salad that shares sim­i­lar roots with the Malaysian nasi ker­abu.

“The flower is more pop­u­lar as an or­na­men­tal bloom all over Thai­land,” says chef Korn Yod­suk of Erawan restau­rant in Kuala Lumpur. “Al­though we adore this flower, we don’t use it a lot in cook­ing. Just a few Thai dishes in the south make use of the torch ginger; for me it is more of a Malaysian spice.”

As an in­ter­est­ing aside, Korn says the torch ginger is a sym­bol of cross-cul­tural love. “There’s an ur­ban myth about the love be­tween a Thai lad and Malay lass. Parental ob­jec­tions kept them apart, but the girl stayed hope­ful as the young man had promised to come for her one day. She fa­mously vowed till the end, "when I die, I’ll re­turn as a torch ginger flower to wait 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 help mask fishy odours.

In mul­ti­cul­tural Malaysia, the bunga kan­tan is an every­day herb in the Malay kitchen, spic­ing up

hot and sour fish, ker­abu sal­ads, herbed rice and laksa. In the hin­ter­land, the indige­nous com­mu­nity har­vests it from the wild to use as a veg­etable in dishes like stir-fry with stink beans.

In In­done­sia, it’s used as an aro­matic and veg­etable. Ke­com­brang finds its way into var­i­ous sal­ads like urap (steamed veg­eta­bles mixed with sea­soned grated co­conut) and pe­cel (tra­di­tional Ja­vanese veg­etable salad with peanut dress­ing). In Bali, ke­com­brang adds punch to the ba­sic sam­bal matah dip, the rel­ish at every meal. In Jakarta, it an­i­mates the street food, ru­jak, bet­ter known as ro­jak in th­ese parts.

In Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, torch ginger is re­garded as the soul of Per­anakan cui­sine, lend­ing its nu­anced cit­rusy flo­ral notes to a rich and cel­e­brated culi­nary tra­di­tion.

There’s an ex­per­i­men­tal spirit in the kitchen th­ese days, and non-con­ven­tional ways of us­ing the torch ginger is emerg­ing. One of the first in the re­gion to use torch ginger in dessert pair­ings and pas­try is Chris Salans of Mozaic in Bali whose torch ginger sor­bet made a knock­out en­try over a decade ago. Mozaic cel­e­brates the best of French-Ba­li­nese flavours, and the torch ginger has found a place on its menu; the cur­rent menu fea­tures a course of In­dian ocean prawns, pick­led radish, fresh torch ginger flower.

To De­wakan’s Dar­ren Teoh, one of Kuala Lumpur’s top chefs and a cham­pion of lo­cal pro­duce, the torch ginger has a lot of po­ten­tial for modern gas­tron­omy. Teoh says he is very par­tial to ginger flow­ers and praises the torch ginger’s fra­grance and flavour. “The first im­pres­sions are al­ways the fra­grance. It is un­mis­tak­ably flo­ral, and you find your­self want­ing to in­hale every last of its heady scent.”

No sur­prise it’s a con­stant on the pro­gres­sive De­wakan menu. “We reg­u­larly use it, fresh as well as pick­led. Right now they adorn our prawn umai with herbs and dried co­conut.” Teoh and his team are also try­ing to ob­tain its es­sen­tial oils for use in the restau­rant's tea of­fer­ings.


Choose buds that are plump and fresh and un­blem­ished, or sim­ply peel away outer petals. Avoid buds that are too green—not only are they less aro­matic, they are fi­brous, tan­nic and as­trin­gent. Red or pink, it’s a mat­ter of choice.

As aro­matic gar­nish, it’s best to use the coloured part of the petals, but the whole bud is ed­i­ble raw or cooked. Slice finely as top­ping; to flavour broth, split the bud in two be­fore adding to the broth. Bear in mind the torch ginger bud is slightly acidic in taste. Slightly opened buds are still good. Even bloomed flow­ers are good for the pot—peel away the tough and dry outer petals and use the many fin­ger­like sec­ondary buds that have ap­peared in stir-fries and pick­les.

The fruit, known in Malaysia 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 the pulp-coated seeds that you want— sim­i­lar to pas­sion fruit pulp. The phy­to­chem­i­cal-rich leaf can be used in the same way as turmeric leaf.

Store buds in a pa­per bag in the fridge for up to a week. Use torch ginger bud when­ever you want to add a sen­sa­tional flavour to a dish, es­pe­cially fish and shrimp, or as a sub­sti­tute for ginger and cit­rus.

For some­thing re­ally cool, use it in drinks and cock­tails, and desserts and patis­serie.


Stud­ies have shown the use­ful­ness of the torch ginger flower as a po­ten­tial func­tional food. It has sig­nif­i­cant amounts of crude pro­tein (12.6 per cent), fat (18.2 per cent) and fi­bre (17.6 per cent), ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the In­ter­na­tional Food Re­search Jour­nal by Univer­siti Sains Malaysia.

Its fatty acid pro­file shows it is high in un­sat­u­rated fatty acids. Its amino acid pro­file shows the pres­ence of es­sen­tial amino acids dom­i­nated by leucine and ly­sine. The study es­tab­lishes that torch ginger bud con­tains ma­jor min­er­als like vi­ta­min K, cal­cium, mag­ne­sium, potas­sium and sodium. Avail­able re­ports also show that torch ginger ex­hibits rich an­tiox­i­dant, an­ti­cancer and an­timi­cro­bial prop­er­ties, and is ef­fec­tive against lead tox­i­c­ity.

Tra­di­tion­ally, it is be­lieved that a daily in­take of the raw flower can re­duce di­a­betes and hy­per­ten­sion. It is also be­lieved to be a nat­u­ral li­bido en­hancer— it has a phal­lic shape af­ter all. It is able to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion in arthritic cases and im­prove ap­petite. Its es­sen­tial oils com­pris­ing al­co­hols and alde­hy­des have po­ten­tial in aro­mather­apy.

Nasi Ker­abu Rice Salad

Serves 4 EASY

This iconic dish of Ke­lan­tan is of­ten served with fried fish or chicken, ayam per­cik or a curry.

For the blue rice

30 dried blue pea flow­ers

450 to 590ml hot wa­ter

2 cups jas­mine or bas­mati rice 2 pan­dan leaves, knot­ted 2 slices galan­gal

2 lemon­grass, smashed

1/2 tsp salt

For the fish and co­conut sam­bal (serund­ing)

300g mack­erel fil­let, fried 100g freshly grated co­conut 4 shal­lots, finely sliced 2 lemon­grass, finely sliced Salt and sugar, to taste

For the ker­abu

100g long beans or wing beans,

sliced finely

100g cab­bage, sliced finely 100g beansprout­s

For the herb mix

1 torch ginger bud

1 kaf­fir lime leaf

20g wild pep­per leaf (daun kaduk) 10g cos­mos (ulam raja)

10g mint

5g poly­gonum (laksa leaf)

For the sam­bal

4 dried chillies, soaked

4 red chillies, sliced

4 shal­lots, sliced

1 clove gar­lic

1 tsp toasted belachan crumbs 2 cala­mansi limes, juiced Sugar, to taste

To serve gar­nish

2 salted duck eggs, boiled and halved fried fish keropok (crack­ers)

4 lime wedges

1. Cook the rice. Soak the flow­ers in hot wa­ter for 15 min­utes. Rinse rice and place in rice cooker pot with strained blue pea flower wa­ter. Add the pan­dan, galan­gal, lemon­grass and salt. Cook rice in rice cooker and let stand cov­ered for 10 min­utes af­ter cook­ing.

2. Pre­pare the fish and co­conut sam­bal. Flake the fish. Dry-fry the grated co­conut un­til aro­matic and start­ing to brown. Lightly pound the shal­lots and lemon­grass, then the co­conut and fish. Mix every­thing to­gether and sea­son to taste.

3. Pre­pare the sam­bal. Blend or pound the dry in­gre­di­ents to­gether, sea­son­ing to taste with lime juice and sugar.

4. Pre­pare the herb mix. Split the torch ginger bud and slice finely. Re­move midrib of kaf­fir lime leaf and slice finely. For the other herbs, place the smaller leaves on the larger leaves and roll up tightly, then slice finely.

5. To serve, in­vert a small bowl of blue rice on each plate. Ar­range all the in­gre­di­ents around it.

Frutti Torch Ginger­tini

Makes 4 serv­ings EASY

This dessert cock­tail is a torch ginger ver­sion of ly­chee mar­tini.

30ml gin or sake

30ml torch ginger syrup Ice cubes

For the torch ginger syrup

2 torch ginger buds 200g sugar

200g wa­ter

For the fruit salad

4 ly­chees

4 lon­gans

4 rambu­tans or man­gos­teens 1 pomelo seg­ment

1 young co­conut, ex­tract flesh 1 young kaf­fir lime leaf

1 dried rose­bud petals (op­tional)

1. Pre­pare the torch ginger syrup. Split the torch ginger buds, dis­card­ing the seedy core. Slice finely and place in a saucepan with the sugar and wa­ter. Bring to a low boil and sim­mer for 5 mins. Cool be­fore pour­ing into a glass jar and store re­frig­er­ated for up to a week.

2. Pre­pare the fruit salad. Peel and re­move seeds of ly­chees, lon­gans and man­gos­teens. Peel pomelo seg­ment. Slice co­conut flesh. Re­move midrib of kaf­fir lime leaf and slice very finely. Sep­a­rate the rose petals and dis­card core. Di­vide among four stem­less wine glasses or large tea cups.

3. To make cock­tail, place gin, syrup and ice cubes in a cock­tail shaker. Give it a good shake and strain into the fruit salad.

This page Shav­ings of torch ginger bud are a req­ui­site top­ping for as­sam laksa

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