Cha-om, a tropical member of the acacia family (Acacia pennata) native to mainland Southeast Asia, is a well-loved herby vegetable among Thais, Cambodians and Laotians. The parts that are eaten are the ferny young leaf shoots and tender tips before the stems turn tough and thorny. It has a particular fragrance that may seem unpleasant at first to the unaccustomed, but when it’s cooked up, it’s so tasty that most people can’t stop eating it and the aroma is just part of the package and soon becomes quite likable. This happens a lot whenever cha-om is cooked up in my cooking classes.
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Cha-om is a small shrub with prickly thorns on its branches and stems, though I hear breeders have come up with a thornless variety I have yet to personally come across. In tropical Southeast Asia, it is a fast-growing shrub that puts out new shoots year-round and most robustly during the rainy season. People in some regions, particularly the North, prefer to eat cha-om in the dry season since cha-om grown during the monsoon season tends to develop a tartness and has a much stronger smell. Growers prune the shrubs regularly to harvest the young shoots, wearing long gloves to protect themselves from the nasty thorns. A mature plant can put forth enough shoots for cutting every three days or so. In the more temperate climate of northern California, growth is less profuse and the plants need protection from the cold. They stop producing new shoots when temperatures dip in late fall and stay semi-dormant through the winter.
The most common way cha-om is cooked is with beaten eggs, like in an omelette, which is then cut into squares or rectangles to serve with pungent nahm prik (hot chilli sauces, usually with fermented shrimp paste – nahm prik kapi in Thai) and fried fish (usually Asian mackerel, or pla too).(See Kasma’s recipe, Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce – Nam Prik Pla Too.)
Cha-om egg squares are also frequently cooked in a spicy sour tamarind curry with shrimp (kaeng som). One of my favorite restaurants, Mallika, located in the outskirts of Bangkok, makes a fabulous crispy fried cha-om in a ferny nest, topped with a hot-and-sour sauce containing squid, shrimp and chopped pork (yam cha-om gkrawb). It’s one of the first dishes people in my Thailand travel groups get to savor as I usually take them to Mallika for lunch right after picking them up from the airport. Most fall for cha-om and look forward to eating more of it in other dishes through the trip.
Because of its fairly assertive flavor and higher price, cha-om is usually not stir-fried by itself like other leafy green vegetables, but is instead used much like an herb to flavor other things cooked with it. For these reasons, it is sold in small bundles in markets across Thailand. Eggs go especially well with cha-om and in my classes, we make a delicious stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean thread noodles.
Starting last spring, we’ve been lucky to be able to get cha-om fresh in the Bay Area during the warmer months beginning in April until the weather turns cold in the fall. Being a tropical acacia, cha-om needs warmth to enable it to put forth new shoots. However, there’s only one store I know of that carries the fresh shoots and that’s Mithapheap, a Cambodian market on International Boulevard in Oakland. [Update, May, 2014: Heng Fath Market on 23rd Street in Richmond, CA also carries it on occasion.] Last summer the store even had cha-om starter plants for sale. But the supply is very limited and disappears quickly in spite of its price (retails for around $15 a pound).
Sam, who owns Mithapheap, tries to carry as many of the tropical herbs and vegetables that his Southeast Asian clientele craves and misses after immigrating to this country. He’s made an arrangement with farmers he knows in Modesto to grow many of these exotic produce. Among them is cha-om. During the growing season, Sam drives down to the farm two to three times monthly, usually late in the week (often Thursdays) and the produce would be available over the weekend. Cha-om is usually gone within a few days. Since both Michael and I are very fond of cha-om, as are many of my students who’ve been introduced to it, Sam would call or email me whenever he’s been to the farm and brought back cha-om. As soon as I receive the message, I would dash down to the store to pick up some before it disappears and then shoot off a message to my students. Sam is the main fresh cha-om supplier in the Bay Area and many of his big Southeast Asian customers, including some restaurant owners, often place special orders with him and are among the people he would contact whenever he brings cha-om back from the farm.
Short of being able to get cha-om fresh, it is available for a lower price in 4-oz. packages imported from Thailand in the freezers of several East Bay stores (haven’t checked the Cambodian markets in San Francisco which most likely would have it). Mithapheap sometimes has frozen packages of de-stemmed leaves which make it easier to use and you get more for the same weight. But most frequently, the frozen packages contain cha-om still on the stems. The Laos International Market two blocks further down the same street also regularly carries frozen cha-om and a third store in the same vicinity to check is Thien Loi Hoa on East 12th Street at 12th Avenue.
Not only is it delcious, cha-om is a nutritious vegetable, high in vitamin C and beta-carotenes. It is good for the heart and is known to be an anti-cancer agent. There’s nothing like a natural food that tastes great and, at the same time, is good for you!
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Kasma’s Cha-om Photo Slide Show
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011