All about butterfly pea flower — the ingredient turning food and drink true blue
The fascinating, floral, Southeast Asian ingredient that’s popping up everywhere
It's used in the popular Chor Ladda dumplings and Khao Yum rice salad at Kiin restaurant in Toronto. It's the star of a vodka-based martini at Loloan Lobby Bar in Waterloo, Ont. And it's what gives British Columbia's Empress 1908 gin its signature indigo colour.
The butterfly pea flower, plucked from the vine of the Clitoria ternatea plant (also known as Asian pigeonwings), is the buzzy ingredient that chefs, mixologists and recipe developers are loving right now. Brewed like a tea, the wild blooms create a bright blue, edible dye … that can change colour!
"You infuse the flowers in water to get an intense colour," explains Naomi Duguid, a James Beard Award–winning culinary writer who leads cultural immersion tours to northern Thailand. "What's so surprising is that you can get blue or you can get purple. If you add lemon to it — or [another] acid to it — depending on the pH, the colour changes."
"This tropical plant is from the Fabaceae [legume, pea or bean] family, which is native to Southeast Asia," says Nadia De La Vega, tea content manager at DavidsTea, which features the flower in a small number of its infusions and teas. "Butterfly pea flowers are traditionally used in Thai and Malaysian cuisines to lend their deep blue colour to sticky rice desserts and puddings. We mainly source this ingredient from Thailand, but, depending on seasonality and supply, the origin might vary within Southeast Asia."
Toronto-based chef Nuit Regular, who grew up in Chiang Mai, recalls seeing the flowers growing on the fence of her childhood home. According to Regular, the ingredient is traditionally valued in Thai cooking for its bright, changing hue more than a particular flavour. "It's all about that beautiful blue-purple colour," she says, noting that in addition to using it to make tea and dye sticky rice served with mango, it's often used to make a dessert called kanom dok anchan made with butterfly pea flower, rice flour and sugar. At Regular's downtown restaurant Kiin, the blooms are sourced sun-dried from Asia and appear in teas, the aforementioned Chor Ladda dumplings and Khao Yum salad, and even in seasonal cocktails.
Aside from their distinctive blue hue and magical colour-changing properties, butterfly pea flowers also offer a few nutritional benefits. "Like other richly blue-coloured foods, such as blueberries, the flowers contain a high amount of anthocyanins, which are a type of antioxidant," says De La Vega, adding that in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, the flowers are praised for their "calming and memory-boosting effects."
This vibrant ingredient is also super easy to prepare at home. You can find dried butterfly pea flowers online and in specialty food stores, including in tea and powder form. With whole flowers, it's just a matter of steeping the blooms to make the bright blue beverage or dye. "Boil the dried flowers with water to extract their colour. The flowers will expand [in the water]; keep boiling it past that point so that all of the colour is removed," says Regular. "When you remove the flowers from the boiling water and squeeze them, no more colour should come out — use that water in your recipes."
The brewed infusion can be enjoyed as an herbal tea, incorporated into sweets and puddings, used as the base for bright-blue beverages, or even frozen into ice cubes for colour-changing lemonade.
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.