If you stumble across a torch ginger plant, you’ll soon find yourself staring into an exotic and beautiful pink flower – one that is synonymous with Malay and Nyonya (Peranakan) dishes. The torch ginger can grow up to 20 feet in height, and the flowers (bunga kantan in Malay) are buds that appear at the end of tall, straight stalks that can be 5 feet long. The name derives from its appearance: when the plant or flower is young, it looks like a flaming torch, as its long thick stem resembles a holder and the closed pink petals the flame.
The torch ginger plant’s scientific name is Etlingera elatior, but it has many other common names, including wild ginger and ginger lily. They are also sometimes called waxflowers because of the waxy appearance of their petals.
While striking to look at, the aromatic torch ginger flower is just as impressive when cooked, adding flavour to stir-fried dishes and curry noodles. It can also be eaten raw in a salad and its leaves can be used to wrap food, in the same way as turmeric leaves.
While it sounds exotic, you can buy the torch ginger flower easily at wet markets for about S$1 per stalk. For those after a fresher taste, foraging is also an option. The flower is abundant in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and in many villages or kampungs it’s common for residents to trek into the secondary jungle to find it and other ingredients.
If you are cultivating this plant for your own use, plant it in a sheltered area, as the shoots can snap off in heavy monsoon rain or strong wind. The torch ginger flower also needs plenty of space, so avoid containers, and you’ll need to ensure that the plants get plenty of water and the soil has sufficient potassium for healthy growth.
While the torch ginger flowers year-round, its peak season is May. Harvesting wild torch ginger is pretty simple. Cut the flower from its stalk before the bracts (also known as specialised petals), which make up the bud but are not part of the actual flower.
Bracts are there to protect small flowers that emerge later. These tiny flowers appear in rings between rows of bracts and come into full bloom between 50 and 60 days. When you find them in full bloom, the petals are waxy and deep pink with paler margin.
Tasting an edible flower
Torch ginger is a relative of the cardamom and turmeric family. The strong-smelling flower is sweet but also has a piquant flavour. The flower is a good source of dietary fibre, unsaturated fatty acids, essential amino acids and essential minerals and has lower levels of heavy metal contaminants.
Some cultures use the showy pink flowers in decorative arrangements, but due to its unique flavour, you will find it used to mask some other sourish profiles of seafood. It can be paired with smoked duck or maybe beef, but the flower’s citrusy flavours work best with fishy odours.
The Karo tribe in north Sumatra tend to use bunga kantan in arsik ikan mas, a dish of stewed fish made with carp and flavoured with Szechuan pepper.
In Bali, the bottom part of the trunk or the stem is used when cooking a chilli sauce called sambal bongkot, and the flowers buds are made into another chilli sauce called sambal kecicang.
In Malaysia the torch ginger flower accompanies asam laksa, helping to balance the complex flavours of this sour and fishy noodle soup.
Being different with bunga kantan
You can find many recipes for using the torch ginger flower in soups, stews, broths, salads and curries. But chefs and home cooks alike have devised interesting plays for this sought-after ingredient.
Some have experimented with desserts or even cocktails. In this recipe, the torch ginger flower is combined with grape and lime juice, sugar and egg whites, and turned into a citrus-like, floral sorbet. For those who enjoy aromatic desserts, it’s sure to please – aside from the sourish tang, you can find a hint of pepper in this dish.
If fried chicken is a favourite in your family, try to add the torch ginger flower for a different dimension to your crunch. This recipe uses a whole host of spices aside from torch ginger flower, such as coriander seeds, turmeric, garlic and chilli, to give you a signature Asian experience.
And finally, complete your meal with this recipe for the laksa cocktail. Comprising of all your typical laksa flavour, you’ll need to drink this cocktail with an open mind.
The recipe calls for torch ginger flower, lemongrass, laksa leaves (daun kesum), galangal and chilli. Sugar, vodka, rum and lime juice make up the rest of the ingredient list. The technique of bruising the root vegetables and flower brings out their deepest flavours for the cocktail’s syrups. The end result is a beautiful pink-hued drink, topped up with chilli and laksa leaves.