There seems to be much confusion and misinformation in western culinary publications and in the food pages of major newspapers about the alleged culinary use of betel leaf, called bai plu in Thai and Lao; bai = leaf, plu = name of the leaf. We do not use it in Thai cuisine and it’s wrong to say that it is the leaf used to wrap a common Thai snack called miang kam.In most of Southeast Asia, the betel leaf is used largely for the chewing of areca nut (erroneously called “betel nut” by colonialists) and as a medicinal herb. It has a very intense taste – bitter, hot, and unpleasantly medicinal – and can numb the tongue. Such a strongly flavored leaf would be far from the leaf of choice among sensible cooks for wrapping the tasty tidbits in miang kam; It would only ruin the intricate balance of flavors of such a delightful Thai snack.
(Click on an image to see a larger version.)
The leaf used in wrapping miang kam is instead the “wild pepper leaf” – bai cha plu in Thai and Lao. Like the betel leaf, it is a member of the pepper genus (botanically, “Piper”) and. therefore, the two are related but far from being the same, just as lemons and oranges are different fruits though both are citrus. The botanical name of betel leaf is “Piper betel,” often spelled “Piper betle,” which gives it its common name, whereas the edible leaf with culinary uses is “Piper sarmentosum”. It would be more accurate to call the latter “wild pepper leaf” rather than “wild betel leaf” as it is sometimes called (again wrongly just as is the case with areca nut) since it has little to do with “betel” other than being in the same large “Piper” family with many other prominent relatives. Doing so only confuses aspiring cooks interested in learning to prepare Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisines who end up buying the wrong leaf to use.
Plu or “betel” is a woody evergreen vine that prefers growing on high ground since it dislikes wet soils, whereas cha plu is a herbaceous creeper that naturally grows along streams in lowland forests, preferring damp soils. This difference already sets the two plants a world apart. Besides, I believe the origins of the two differ – “betel” is native to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whereas cha plu‘s home is the tropical heartland of Southeast Asia. The reason for the confusion between the two, aside from the improper naming by western sources, stems from the similar shape and color of the leaves and the difficulty of telling which is which from a distance. Both have large, glossy, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. But when the two are placed side by side, the differences are apparent. bai plu is much larger, thicker, tougher and more leathery with a smoother appearance, while bai cha plu is thinner, more tender and has much more veining in-between the main vertical lines giving it a crinkly appearance (see pictures below for comparison).
(This is a leaf of a type of sweet potato – don’t mistake it for bai cha plu!)
Because of their similar appearance, even some Thais can confuse one for the other if shown just one leaf. For this reason and the way it is cultivated and harvested, bai plu or betel leaf is almost always sold as single leaves, occasionally bundled together with a strip of the outer covering of banana stem. In fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand, it is usually found in the “smoke shop” – i.e., the stall that sells fresh or dried areca nuts and tobacco. Seldom is it ever found among vegetables at fresh produce stalls. Bai cha plu, on the other hand, is always sold still attached to a stem in the company of several other leaves and is sold in bunches alongside other vegetables (see picture, below, of vegetable stall in Sukhothai market).
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two leaves are sold in a similar fashion as above. Betel leaves can be found in single leaves in a large bag, usually near dried areca nuts (yes, there are Southeast Asian immigrants here who still chew them as a stimulant) or the checkout stand and you can buy one or as many leaves as you wish, while “wild pepper leaves” are sold still attached to stems (usually the terminal ends of young vines) and most often, already packaged in plastic bags. At $7 to $20 a pound, depending on availability, it’s hard to confuse it with a common and much cheaper summer vegetable (a kind of sweet potato leaves – see picture, above) which comes in large bunches with similar-shaped but thinner, smaller and non-shiny leaves at 99 cents a pound.
The Thai name cha plu is a recognizable one to Lao and Cambodian shopkeepers, so you can ask them to verify whether you are buying the right leaves. In the East (San Francisco) Bay where I live, I have no trouble finding cha plu in three Oakland stores during the warmer months of the year – Sontepheap on International Blvd. and 14th Ave, Sun Hop Fat on East 12th Street at 5th Ave, and occasionally bulk at the Laos International Market on International between 16th and 17th Aves. During the winter and early spring when the weather is still quite cold, this tropical vegetable may be hard to come by and has to be shipped in from Hawaii.
Bai cha plu has become so closely associated with Miang Kam that among Thais it is frequently given the nickname bai miang (bai = leaf), although another tasty, large and fairly thick, oblong leaf called bai tonglang is also used for this snack. The latter, however, is now rarely available as fewer growers cultivate it. Besides Miang Kam, cha plu accompanies many kinds of spicy salads as a wrapper since its size, resilience and peppery flavor make it a good leaf for this purpose. Among them is the delicious and fiery hot yum sadet pictured here from Reun Mai restaurant in Krabi – a mixture of shrimp, fried cashews, fried dried cuttlefish, chopped ginger, lemon grass, Thai chillies, chopped lime with peel, shredded green mango and other ingredients that combine perfectly to set off the fuse for a big explosion of flavor in the mouth, the bai cha plu adding both flavor and texture.
Another salad pictured here – Miang Takrai (Lemongrass Miang) – comes from the charming Sudapon restaurant in Trang – a sweet-and-sour combination of myriad chopped ingredients and featuring thinly sliced lemon grass and sweet shredded dried pork. There are other miang’s, too, that sometimes use bai cha plu as one of the leaves for wrapping, such as the miang bplah tu shown below from one of my classes, consisting of a tossed salad of finely shredded cooked “bplah tu” (a favorite, small mackerel plentiful in the Gulf of Thailand), slivered ginger, sliced lemon grass, sawtooth coriander, green onions, and a hot-and-sour dressing made with chopped Thai chillies and lime juice, to be wrapped in a leaf (either bai cha plu or lettuce) along with toasted shredded coconut, roasted peanuts and cilantro. Indeed a delicious combination! and a complete meal in itself served chilled on a hot summer day!
Bai cha plu is also shredded up as one of the vegetables in southern Thailand’s well-loved rice salad (kao yum) and cooked in whole leaves as a vegetable in pungent curries with chicken, shrimp or snails, where the leaves impart a distinctive flavor and aroma. cha plu is loaded with antioxidants and recent research indicates that it is protective against several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the lungs throat, stomach, intestines and bladder. It is rich in beta-carotenes, which the body can convert into valuable vitamin A if eaten along with good fats needed to store and transport this fat-soluble vitamin. In the case of a curry, the coconut milk provides the necessary fat. bai cha plu, however, does contain a fair amount of oxalates, which need to be offset by eating it with sufficient protein such as the seafood or other meats in a curry, and by drinking lots of water to flush out the oxalates from the body.
As for betel leaf, I know of no culinary use for this strong-tasting leaf with known stimulant qualities. Some sources here in the Bay Area say the Vietnamese use it for wrapping meats for grilling, but when I ask recent immigrants from Vietnam, I am told the leaf used for this purpose is not the betel leaf, but the “wild pepper leaf”. They all tell me that betel leaf is only used for the chewing of areca nut and for medicinal purposes and that it is much too strong and stimulating for consuming as a vegetable. In fact, a Cambodian friend told me recently that he once ate a betel leaf and it kept him frazzled most of the day!
In wrapping areca nut for chewing, the betel leaf is not ingested, but spitted out. Betel leaf is a stimulant and so is areca nut, but the stimulant property of both is absorbed through the blood vessels lining the inside of the mouth and not through the digestive tract. Although it has many medicinal benefits and is used in age-old Ayurvedic medicine in India, the unusually higher rate of oral cancer among people who chew “betel nut” has led some scientists to speculate that the betel leaf might possibly be the culprit. In the absence of further studies to prove or disprove this suspicion, it would be prudent to be cautious and avoid eating the betel leaf as a substitute for the nutritious “bai chaplu”. There’s no telling whether it might contribute to the risk of other cancers if it is ingested.
In a Thai-language book about 108 myriad Thai vegetables (the number 108 is often used to describe plentiful abundance in varieties), the author is quick to point out that the flavorful bai cha plu with all its wonderful nutritional properties, “often feels horribly slighted” by people who erroneously identify it as betel leaf. Somehow in the West, culinary personalities, like the colonialists before them, are confused. Just as the areca nut has been “slighted” for centuries by being called “betel nut”, the “wild pepper leaf” is likewise being misunderstood as if it is the “betel” leaf. Why is it that the West has such a romanticized notion of the word “betel”?
Of further interest:
- Kasma’s recipe for Miang Kam – Tasty Leaf-wrapped Tidbits
- USDA Listing – Piper sarmentosum (“wild pepper leaf”)
- USDA Listing – Piper betle (betal leaf)
- Pictures of Piper sarmentosum (“wild pepper leaf”
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010.