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Dining In 3 minutes 26 March 2019

Ingredient Spotlight: Butterfly Pea Flower

Chase away the blues with this magical color-changing ingredient and its stress-relieving antioxidant properties.

ingredients forage garden

The flowers of the butterfly pea plant are quite a sight to behold. Vibrant blue or violet, the little blossoms have a bright yellow slash at their centers and delicate petals.

Native to Southeast Asia where the warm climate favors its growth, the bright blue petals from the flowers of the butterfly pea plant have traditionally been used as an ingredient in herbal teas as well as in cooking. The indigo flower imparts its beautiful blue color when steeped in warm or hot water, making it a natural dye for various dishes and drinks.

As a natural litmus that changes color when it comes in contact with acid, the eye-catching blue shade of butterfly pea flower extract and its mesmerizing color-changing properties have made it increasingly popular across the world. Last year, coffee giant Starbucks launched a limited-edition Butterfly Pea Lemonade Cold Brew that made its rounds on social media for its dreamy color-shifting hues.
Left: Starbucks' limited edition Butterfly Pea Lemonade Cold Brew. (Photo courtesy of Starbucks.)
Left: Starbucks' limited edition Butterfly Pea Lemonade Cold Brew. (Photo courtesy of Starbucks.)

Culinary Uses of Butterfly Pea Flower

In Southeast Asia, butterfly pea flowers have long been used as a natural food coloring in Thai, Malay and Peranakan cuisines. The petals have practically no scent or flavor, making them the perfect food coloring agent for any dish or drink without changing its flavor. As a tea, it has a mild woody, earthy taste, not unlike green tea.

The flower is known as dok anchan in Thailand, where it is shredded into fine ribbons and added to rice salad, or its blue liquid extracted and steamed with jasmine rice. Many Thai resorts also greet guests with a welcome drink made from dok anchan and lemongrass. Traditional Thai snacks like steamed chaw muang dumplings and pale purple khanom chan cakes are colored with butterfly pea flower extract.

In Malaysia and Singapore, it is known in the Malay language as bunga telang. It is used in Malay dishes such as nasi kerabu, pulut inti, kuih tekan and pulut tai tai, where rice is naturally dyed blue.

'Nasi kerabu' is naturally dyed blue with butterfly pea flower.
'Nasi kerabu' is naturally dyed blue with butterfly pea flower.
The extract of butterfly pea flower is also widely used in Peranakan cuisine and gives dishes like savoury Nyonya zhang (rice dumplings) and kueh salat their signature blue tinge. The use of blue colouring in Peranakan cooking isn’t purely decorative. Blue is the colour of mourning and used to mark certain kuehs for occasions such as funerals. Nine-layered rainbow kueh lapis when coloured with alternate layers of white and blue is reserved for funerals. Similarly, when served at funerals, the glutinous rice layer of kueh salat is fully coloured blue rather than just speckled with the colour.
'Peranakan kuehs' like this 'pulut tai tai' are often coloured with butterfly pea flower.
'Peranakan kuehs' like this 'pulut tai tai' are often coloured with butterfly pea flower.

Behind Its Color-Changing Properties

In 2015, Husk Distillers in New South Wales, Australia, launched Ink Gin, which quickly gained attention for its eye-catching rich indigo hue in the bottle and its magical ability to change color in a glass. The grain spirit is infused with 12 botanicals from around the world, including juniper berries, lemon myrtle, Tasmanian pepper berry, cardamom and, you guessed it, butterfly pea flower. The world’s first color-changing gin turns from royal blue to blush pink when tonic or lemon is added to it.

The color of butterfly pea tea changes depending on the pH levels of whatever it is mixed with. The blue hue changes to purple in the presence of a little acid, becoming hot pink as the acidity increases. To make an extract of butterfly pea flower for food coloring, steep about a dozen fresh or dried flowers in a cup of boiling water. After about 15 minutes, strain the liquid and discard the flowers. The deep blue water is then ready to be used as blue food coloring.

Different shades of red, purple and blue can be derived from the extract by changing the acidity of the liquid. Adding a dash of lemon or lime juice turns it into a purplish-red color, while adding roselle hibiscus petals changes it to a bright red color.

Ink Gin magically changes from blue to pink in a glass when tonic is added. (Photo courtesy of Husk Distillers.)
Ink Gin magically changes from blue to pink in a glass when tonic is added. (Photo courtesy of Husk Distillers.)
Nutritional Benefits and Medicinal Uses

Used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, butterfly pea flower tea has been consumed for centuries as a brain booster, antidepresant and calmative agent. When steeped as a tea, butterfly pea flower makes for a calming caffeine-free herbal tisane that has similar antioxidant properties as green tea.

The blue flower is rich in anthocyanin, a potent antioxidant that is also what gives it its fascinating color-changing properties. The antioxidants in butterfly pea can rejuvenate the skin by stimulating collagen synthesis and lessen the signs of aging. The anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of butterfly pea flower extract can also help alleviate pain and reduce fevers.
Blue pea flower plants are creeping vines that help nourish the soil they are planted in.
Blue pea flower plants are creeping vines that help nourish the soil they are planted in.
How to Grow Them

The butterfly pea plant grows as a creeping vine that winds its way up fences or poles, requiring little care when cultivated. As its name suggests, it is a legume and its fruits are long flat pods with peas inside that are edible when tender.

Once dried, the seeds can be planted in moist, well-drained garden soil and will start germinating in about two weeks. The hardy plant can be exposed to full or partial sunlight and its vines grow quickly and messily, so it is best to support them with sticks or train them to grow along a wooden trellis.

Not only do butterfly pea plants seem to thrive on neglect, being members of the legume family means that they have root nodules that contain rhizobium, a fungus that converts atmospheric nitrogen into usable nitrates that fertilize the soil. Because of this property, the butterfly pea vine can not only do well in poor soil, its growth also helps condition the soil and make it more fertile for other plants in a garden.

To promote bushy growth, pinch off the tips of the plant and harvest its flowers regularly so the vine does not go into seed production phase. The flowers can be harvested, dried in the sun and kept as a pantry staple for a very long time.

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