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How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Brown rice can be easy to cook and very nutritious. Today a growing number of people concerned about healthful eating are turning from consuming white rice to whole-grain brown rice, even in Thailand. But many of them complain that it takes a lot more time and water to cook brown rice and sometimes the result can be a little mushy. More worrisome is the fact that few of them are aware that when they cook brown rice without proper treatment ahead of time, they may end up getting only a small fraction of the nutrition stored in the grain, There also are a number of anti-nutrients contained in whole grains that can potentially cause harm if not neutralized.

Rice for Sale

Rice at Aw Taw Kaw Market

(Click images to see larger version.)

Whole-grain brown rice is a seed and like most seeds, it contains phytates– nature’s own preservative and insecticide which lock in nutrients to keep the seed viable until conditions are ideal for it to sprout. When the grain is still new (less than a year after harvest), the phytates (and other anti-nutrients) in the bran are especially intact, keeping the grain bug-free as insects know not to eat it at this stage since they can be harmed by doing so. (In humans, the phytic acid contained in these compounds binds with key minerals , especially calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc and can inhibit their absorption in the intestinal tract, leading to mineral deficiencies.) Over time, if the conditions for storage are less than ideal, the phytates eventually break down and the fragile rice bran oil turn rancid, and when they do, bugs begin to infiltrate and feast on the grain that has lost nature’s protection.

Different Rices

Whole grain rices

For those of us who are gardeners, we know that hard-to-sprout seeds benefit from soaking in warm water overnight. The moisture and warmth send a signal to the germ of the seed that life-supporting conditions are now present. The seed unlocks its nutrients by breaking down the phytates that until then protected the seed from spoiling, and begins to germinate or sprout.

The same is true of whole-grain rice (as well as wheat and other whole-grain cereals, nuts and dry legumes). When we soak it overnight, or for several hours, especially in warm water since it is the seed of a tropical grass, the potentially harmful phytates break down, making the full range of nutrients available to the rice germ to push forth new life. At this stage, the unlocked nutrients also become available to us when we consume the rice.

Soaking Brown Rice

Soaking brown rice

I’ve always soaked whole-grain rice before cooking, mainly because this treatment makes the rice not only easier to cook, but taste a whole lot better. Several years ago I came across an article in a health and nutrition journal that gave me another reason to tell my cooking students why they should soak their brown rice before cooking. Notably, intensive rice research conducted in Japan over the past two decades revealed how the nature of the nutrients in whole-grain rice changed when given a water bath to awaken the grain. Curious scientists were eager to discover how long the grain needed to be soaked for the the full range of nutrients locked inside of it to be fully released. If I recall correctly, the research found that the ideal number of hours is twenty-two (22).

This interesting piece of information got me soaking my brown rice one evening to be cooked the following evening, or close to the recommended twenty-two hours. In the past, I’ve soaked whole-grain rice only about three to four hours, or overnight, before cooking – particularly black sticky rice which swells when soaked, requiring little water and time to cook. I experimented with soaking for a full day brown jasmine rice mixed with a small amount of a red rice called “kao man bpoo” (literally “crab fat rice” but unfortunately sold in the USA by a less than appealing name of “red cargo rice”). This red rice was one of the first whole-grain rice to be embraced by the health food movement in Thailand as especially nourishing. I used warm tap water to start but didn’t bother with maintaining the warmth for the entire time of soaking. The result was indeed amazing!

Steamed Soaked Rice

The steamed soaked rice.

The grains absorbed a lot of water and grew fat, with the germ – or the “nose” of the rice as Thais call it – enlarged as if they were getting ready to sprout. Being an avid gardener, that was quite exciting to see. The soaked grains exuded a sweet fresh aroma as if they had come to life – as if they had just been harvested from the rice paddy! The grains took a little less water to cook than white rice (if you like your rice al dente) and about the same length of time as white rice using my usual method of steaming rice taught to my cooking students (read on). The cooked grains stayed whole, looked beautiful and, best of all, tasted wonderful – with a delicious nuttiness and invitingly fresh fragrance – much more so than when soaked for the three to four hours I used to do in the past. I am now convinced that the fully released nutrients are what add to the tastiness of the rice.

So, next time you cook brown rice, soak it this evening to cook tomorrow evening. I usually rinse the rice a couple of times, then cover with plenty of water as much of it will be absorbed by the grains. If it’s too much trouble to maintain warmth for the duration of the soaking time, room temperature works just fine. In fact, if you soak the rice in warm water for that long, fermentation can take place and produce a slightly off smell. It is, therefore, recommended that you change the water a few times during those 22 hours if warmth is maintained the whole time. For me, in my northern California kitchen, I find soaking the rice at room temperature for all those hours woks well enough in awakening the grain.

Steamed Rice Close-up

Steamed rice close-up

I like to steam the rice using the same method I use to cook white jasmine rice as described on my website. (See Steamed Jasmine Rice Recipe.) This technique is a true steam method unlike one-compartment electric rice cookers which actually boil rather than steam the rice and, therefore, produce a less tasty result. All you need is a deep heat-proof bowl and a pot large enough to accommodate it. Place a trivet of some kind in the pot on which the bowl containing the rice can rest. Look in the cookware section of large Asian supermarkets for such a utensil, or you can improvise by using a small overturned dish, such as a ramekin, or even an empty tin can cut away on both ends, Fill the pot with a couple of inches of water and bring to a boil. In a separate kettle, boil some water.

Golden Phoenix Brown Rice

Golden Phoenix brown rice

Drain the soaked rice, lightly rinse once and drain again. Place in the heatproof bowl and level out the rice. The bowl should be about half full with rice. Place the bowl on the stand in the pot and add hot boiling water to the rice – to about half an inch above the grains (for al dente) to three-quarters of an inch (for softer rice). When the water in the pot below the lifted bowl comes to a rolling boil, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium, or to a level where you can still hear water boiling in the pot and see steam escaping from the edge of the lid. Let steam for about 25 to 30 minutes. After the rice is cooked, you can keep it warm for a long time by simply turning down the heat to the lowest setting. With this method of steaming, you need not worry about burning your rice and the bowl is very easy to clean once you’ve dished out the cooked rice.

For a delicious brown rice meal, try the Golden Phoenix label’s blend of jasmine brown rice which contains a small amount of red cargo rice for added color, flavor and nutrition. Buy a bag that shows a date of harvest or shipment of less than one year. It’s available in five- and ten-pound bags in many large Asian markets. The bulk of Golden Phoenix’s rice come from Northeastern Thailand where among the most fragrant jasmine rices are grown.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2010

Southeast Asian Ideas With Pumpkin

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, October 15th, 2010

Winter squashes are used for various dishes is Southeast Asian Cooking.

With the autumn leaves rustling, orange and golden colors are appearing all around us. On tables at farmer’s markets, produce counters in supermarkets and seasonal pumpkin patches at corner lots, the colorful winter squashes are the smash of the season’s harvest. Seeing them all around stirs up delicious memories of the golden squashes I grew up with and the wonderful dishes in which they reveal their glory.

Golden Squash

Golden squash, Sukhothai

The squash I grew up knowing as “pumpkin” is a much different variety from the bright orange ones that are carved and decorated as jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. Smaller, flatter and more disc-shaped, its mottled dark green peel turns to a dull greyish green, tinged with spots of yellow and light orange as it ripens. Inside, the flesh is a vibrant golden yellow, hence we call it “golden squash.”

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Luckily there are now so many different varieties of winter squashes to choose from in Bay Area produce markets. Relatives to the golden squashes of home are the kabocha and the kalabasa. Tasty and sweet, both these varieties revive recollections of my favorite flavors from childhood. Brought to us here by Japanese American farmers, the kabocha (meaning “little pumpkin”) is now widely available not only in Asian markets, but in supermarkets and neighborhood grocery stores as well. It is prized by Southeast Asian immigrants as can be seen by its availability in most of their markets, to the exclusion of other “pumpkins.” Kalabasa, on the other hand, is only beginning to become popular and its availability is still limited.

Kabocha Squash

Cut kabocha squash

I love kabocha. A fully ripe one has a delightful natural sweetness. Cooked, its smooth, creamy texture melts in the mouth, revealing a rich and nutty flavor. Without the stringiness and sponginess of common varieties of pumpkins, some of my friends tell me it makes an exquisite pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

Squash Carving

Carving a squash


Southeast Asians also carve their pumpkins, but in floral designs on the outside, while the cavity inside is used as a bowl to hold a sweet coconut-egg custard that is steamed until both pumpkin and custard are cooked through. This is sliced and served in small wedges, the golden flesh of the pumpkin surrounding the caramel-colored custard – a lovely and delicious dessert. (See Coconut Egg custard (Sangkaya).) Instead of pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, we make bite-size pumpkin cakes with rice flour and shredded coconut steamed in small banana leaf cups, (See a picture of Steamed Pumpkin Cakes (Kanom Faktong).) and a sweet soup of pumpkin sticks in coconut milk. (See Sweet Soup of Kabocha in Coconut Milk (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong).) As you may have guessed, coconut is a favorite companion for our pumpkins.

Custard

Custard in squash

Besides desserts and sweet treats, we use golden squashes in different stages of ripeness for a wide variety of dishes, including soups, salads, appetizers, pickles, vegetable courses and curries. Try the recipe for Golden Pumpkin Coconut Soup (Gkaeng Liang Fak Tong). It is simple and nutritious, but because it is very rich, in the tropical heat, we usually eat only a few mouthfuls of it along with rice, much as we would eat curry and other dishes at a meal. With the colder Northern Californian climate, however, the richness of this soup can be fully appreciated, giving warmth and comfort. Try this soup with some of the hearty sourdough bread for which the Bay Area is known.

Pumpkin Soup

Golden Pumpkin Soup

For a delicious pumpkin soup, use a ripe kabocha squash – one with peel that has turned a light greyish green, splashed with splotches of yellow and orange. But it shouldn’t be so old that it has dried out. Pick one with a good weight for its size. If the squash is under-ripe (i.e., still deep green in color), use a natural sweetener such as palm or coconut sugar to help bring its nutty flavor through the coconut milk. A green kabocha squash will ripen when stored in a well ventilated area for several weeks, or even a few months, so I always have one on hand. It is pretty to look at in the hanging basket in my kitchen. If you are not able to find kabocha, substitute with a good variety of winter squash that has a sweet and buttery flavor.


Here are links to recipes mentioned in this blog:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, October 2010

Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Goat Curry in Thailand

Goat Curry

Thai Muslim Goat Curry

Goat curry might not necessarily come to mind when you think of Thai food.

Although Thailand is said to be anywhere from 90% to 95% Buddhist, there is also a substantial Muslim population, particularly in the southernmost provinces. Goat is a popular meat among Muslims, although it is hard to find in restaurants in Thailand – it is mostly consumed at home. One year we purchased a goat from the wife of our boat driver in Krabi and had her cook us some goat meals. One of the dishes she made was a goat curry, similar to this one.

The only place in America where I’ve had many delicious Thai dishes such as this one is in my own home. I love when Kasma is developing new recipes for her Advanced classes (she has 8 evening series and 4 weeklong Advanced classes) because it means I’ll get to eat Thai food such as is available only in Thailand and at home. Many of Kasma’s student begin taking classes after a trip to Thailand when they find out that the only way to get the mouth-watering Thai flavors they experienced in Thailand is to learn how to cook the dishes themselves. Unfortunately, the only way to learn to cook some of these dishes is to work your way through to the Advanced series where it is taught.

I love the Thai word for goat: it is paeh, very much the sound that a goat makes when it bleats.

I thought this month to post a number of pictures from Kasma’s Advanced Thai cooking classes, such as the Thai Fruit Salad from last week.


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Following Thai Recipes

Michael Babcock, Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

I’ve found that there’s a way to follow Thai recipes that increases your chances of getting a terrific Thai dish. I’ve been looking at Thai recipes lately, some on the web and some in cookbooks. Nearly every recipe I read reminds me a bit of a clock that no longer moves: it’s bound to be correct at least twice a day.

Cooking Green Curry

Green curry, cooking in the pot

I recently received a refresher course in the fine art of balancing Thai flavors. We had gone to a party given by one of Kasma’s Advanced cooking class students. One of the people there was making one of my favorite curry dishes of all time – Green Curry with Fish/Shrimp Dumplings (Gkaeng Kiow Wahn Loogchin Bplah/Gkoong). In this recipe, the green curry paste is made from scratch, by pounding the paste ingredients in a mortar and pestle. The result is usually a delightfully fresh, flavorful green curry that is far superior to anything you can make from a pre-made paste.

We were in the kitchen and I took a taste of the green curry, which was still in the pot; neither fish sauce nor palm sugar had been added yet. It tasted terrible! It was barely recognizable as a green curry! Was this Kasma’s recipe?!?

Thai Salty Flavors

Thai salty flavors

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Then Kasma started in balancing the flavors, adding more palm sugar and fish sauce, not really anything else. After a few adjustments the green curry began tasting delightful: yup, it was the right recipe. After each addition, I got to taste how the flavor had changed, a basic tasting exercise such as Kasma does in all of her classes. It got to a point where I thought it was fabulous; I would have stopped. Hmm, just a little more palm sugar – the flavors deepened a bit more. Then a splash of fish sauce brought out even more flavors, and it was done.

What I found interesting was how much fish sauce and palm sugar Kasma added AFTER it started tasting good; only someone who knew how to balance flavors would know to keep adding ingredients and would know when to stop. Following a recipe with “2 Tbs. fish sauce” you CAN get an acceptable result: you might even get the best result possible. But it is hit-and-miss: if you don’t know how to balance flavors, you’ll just have to follow the recipe and hope rather than tasting, adjusting, tasting, adjusting and getting the best taste possible.

Nearly every single recipe of Kasma has at least one ingredient where a range of how much to add is given. In the Green Curry recipe above, there’s:

  • 3-4 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 1-2 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar, to taste

In other recipes she might specify “Fish sauce, to desired saltiness.”

Thai Sweet Flavors

Thai sweet flavors

I think that any time you cook a Thai recipe, you need to taste it. When a recipes specifies “1 Tbs fish sauce” there is no way of knowing if the fish sauce of the author matches your fish sauce in saltiness. Even if the author used the same brand of fish sauce, maybe he had a new bottle and your’s had been open for 3 months:  the quantity could still be wrong – as it sits, the fish sauce becomes saltier. There are so many ingredients that can vary in taste: limes vary in degree of sourness, fish sauce in saltiness, palm sugar in sweetness, to name just a few. If you just put the exact quantities called for in a recipe, there’s no way you can tell if you are close to what the author intended; and if the author of the recipe didn’t really know Thai flavors, you’ll need to make adjustments to get a Thai taste.

Kasma has written extensively on this topic. These two articles are a good place to begin:

Thai Sour Flavors

Thai sour flavors

The problem, then, with nearly every Thai recipe I come across is that they don’t specify a range of ingredients, they don’t tell you that you have to use ingredients “to taste.” When you are following a Thai recipe, unless you understand how to harmonize flavors to produce a Thai outcome, you’ll only get it right some of the time: you’re at the mercy of the vagaries your variable ingredients. The most valuable part of Kasma’s classes is teaching you that cooking is as much an art as a science, as much an attitude of openness and flexibility as following a recipe and, of course, knowing how to balance flavors.

Another barrier for westerners can be the use of salty and sweet flavors. Westerners are particularly afraid of the salty flavor and this can be a real problem because, as you discover through tasting exercises, salt does more than add salty flavor: it also brings out and enhances other flavors, making a dish more sour, more spicy hot, more whatever. Then in nearly every class Kasma is asked about omitting sugar from recipes. We westerners do not grow up realizing that adding sugar to a dish can bring out all the other flavors and make them dance on your tongue; Thai food without sugar would not have nearly as many delightful tastes.

If you are concerned about too much salt, might I suggest two articles:

Thai Spicy Hot Flavors

Thai spicy hot flavors

We westerners also don’t know enough about how flavors interact. The spiciest dishes I have ever had in Thailand have been sour soups or curries, such as Kaeng Som Pla – Spicy Sour Fish Soup with Vegetables.” Something about the sour seems to really give a kick to the chilli peppers! If you don’t know this, you have a harder time intelligently adjusting a recipe with both sour and spicy/hot.

In her second book, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood, Kasma has a chapter entitled: Cooking “to Taste.” She says

Since ingredients can vary considerably, it is important to make adjustments in the quantity used to bring about the optimal flavor balance in each dish. Therefore, do not follow recipes religiously, but rather, cook “to taste.” Remember that recipes serve as guidelines; they cannot speak for variances in the quality of ingredients that are available in different locales. They also cannot speak for your particular taste preference, so cut down on the amount of chillies if you can’t take the heat and the amount of lime juice if you don’t like sharp sour flavors. Use more garlic and basil if you are a garlic and basil lover, less if you find them too strong for your taste, and so on. – Kasma Loha-unchit in Cooking “to Taste”

Green Curry

Green Curry from scratch

In “The Art and Joy of Thai Cooking,” taken from her first book It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking, Kasma says:

Cooking is an art, much like painting. To produce good art, we must rely on our instincts and feelings as much as our knowledge of materials and methods. Recipes in a cookbook can only be rough guidelines in this creative process. The herbs and spices, condiments and flavor ingredients are like the many different kinds and colors of paints. Learning how to combine them is like learning how to mix paints to obtain the color combinations we desire. Some go together better than others, producing very pleasing results; others do not do so well, giving a muddy look and taste. Adding too much or too little of an ingredient can affect the overall picture, but the decision to do so depends on the artist’s or the viewer’s personal tastes. The cook’s “paints” are applied to the “canvases” of meats, seafoods and vegetables; kitchen implements are the “paint brushes” and methods of preparation are different techniques for applying “paint” in order to create the “images” we envision. Over the years, many of my students have been amazed how the same few ingredients used in different combinations or applied in different methods of preparation produce a vast array of dishes, none tasting like any other before them. – Kasma Loha-unchit in The Art and Joy of Thai Cooking

Kasma emphasizes the idea of how to work with a recipe in her article “The Spirit of Thai Cooking:”

In my book as well as my classes, I caution people against blindly following recipes, simply because depending on where you are cooking Thai food (in Thailand or a western country), you may need to make variations and substitutions in order to duplicate true Thai flavors. The same ingredients grown in different locales around the world can vary quite a bit, such that if you follow even a very authentic recipe verbatim, you may end up with a result that is way off. It is better that you rely on your intuition and senses (taste, smell, sight, etc.) to guide you. For instance, lemon grass or Thai basil grown in a temperate zone or in a hothouse may have different qualities and strength than what you find in the markets of Thailand. I myself have found American limes not as intense in flavor as Thai limes and therefore, frequently have to make adjustments by adding other ingredients that would intensify their flavors. (Even in Thailand, limes from different seasons of the year can vary enough to make a noticeable difference to the sophisticated palate.) Fish sauce and gkapi [shrimp paste] can vary substantially from brand to brand, producing dramatically different results in cooking, so it would help to know the brand the author of the recipe uses. – Kasma Loha-unchit in The Spirit of Thai Cooking.

So next time you attempt a Thai recipe, look for one with either a range of some of the key ingredients (fish sauce, lime or tamarind juice, palm sugar), the words “to taste” or that tells you how the finished dish should taste (such as very sour and spicy/hot with a bit of sweetness). Don’t make yourself follow a recipe religiously. Be wary of recipes with exact amounts for everything, particularly the flavoring ingredients (fish sauce, sour ingredient, sugar, chillies). Learn how to harmonize the flavors, taste the recipe as you go, don’t add all the major flavoring ingredients all at once: add a bit and taste; add a bit more and taste again. Make the recipe your own!

If you can, find a talented Thai chef and ask them to teach you how to harmonize flavors: just as one picture is worth a thousand words, one taste can be worth all the words in the world.


You might also enjoy my article:


Written by Michael Babcock, October 2010

Incense Candles – Tien Ohb

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, September 4th, 2010

One of the more interesting “ingredients” in Thai cooking is a special incense candle, (tien ohb, in Thai). This candle is commonly used in the making of sweetmeats and desserts to add a spicy fragrance and smokiness by “smoking” ingredients, such as shredded coconut.

Incense Candles

Incense candles

The incense candle is  made of organic matter including herbs and flower petals. Brown in color, it has a curved shape and can be lit on both ends. This exotic item as this may not be easy to find in Western countries; ask for it in specialty Thai markets in cities with sizable Thai populations. If you travel to Thailand, look in stores that carry incense and merit-making supplies. I usually   buy mine from one of the stores carrying them in Banglampoo, in Bangkok. There are several different kinds from which to choose. Sniff and discover which fragrance you like. One candle will last a long time; it will burn very slowly and produce a lot of scented smoke.

Using an Incense Candle

Using an incense candle

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

To smoke with an incense candle, put the uncooked coconut mixture loosely in a bowl and place the bowl inside a large pot. Light the candle on both ends and position alongside the bowl. Close the lid tightly, adding extra weight over the top if necessary—such as an inverted stone mortar—to prevent smoke from escaping. Allow to smoke 30 minutes to one hour. For a stronger smoky flavor, relight the candle after 30 minutes to produce more smoke.

(Note from Michael: I love it! A candle that can be burned at both ends!)

Smoking Incense Candle

Smoking incense candle

One of Kasma’s recipes that uses an incense candle is: Grilled Coconut Cakes – Kanom Paeng Jee.

This candle is available online at Temple of Thai in the U.S. and at Raanthai.co.uk in Europe.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, August 2010.

Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, July 25th, 2010

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.

Betel Leaves

Betel leaves - bai plu

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.

Bunch of Bai Cha Plu

A bunch of bai cha plu

(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).

Bai Cha Plu

Bai cha plu

Bai Plu - Betel Leaf

Bai plu - betel leaf

Sweet Potato Leaf

A type of sweet potato leaf

(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).

Vegetable Vendor

Vendor, bai cha plu to right

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.

Miang Kam For Sale

Packaged Miang Kam sets

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.

Yum Sadet Salad

Yum sadet salad

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.

Miang Takrai

Miang Takrai, Sudapon restaurant

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!

Miang Plah Too

Miang Bplah Tu

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.

Betel Nut Sets

Betel nut sets with rolled betel leaves

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.

Miang Kam

<em>Miang Kam</em> bite on bai cha plu

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:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010.