Steeping dried butterfly pea flowers in hot water yields a blue colored brew. Add lemon slices or juice and the brew turns purple. No kidding. Just look at the collage below and be amazed.
But let me start at the beginning. More than two months ago in Chiang Mai. Alex and I were buying tea and, after she had chosen a bag of jasmine oolong and a bag of Thai tea, we decided to try some of the non-tea herbals brews.
What do I mean by non-tea herbal brews? Tea is Camellia sinensis. If you steep dried leaves, roots, flower or barks that do not come from Camellia sinensis in hot water to make a drink, it isn’t tea. It’s a herbal brew. Or tisane, as the French call it.
Confused? Yeah, I know. Most people think that any hot drink made by steeping dried plant parts in water automatically qualifies as making tea. Not so. Tea-drinking has a long history and deep cultural significance in Asia, and it’s really just as case of translating tea-drinking into terms understandable to English speakers that brought about the confusion between real tea and herbal brew.
Or, perhaps, it’s marketing. I mean, how do herbal brew sellers make their products more understandable for English speakers? Label dried butterfly pea flowers as “Butterfly Pea Flower Drink” and English-speakering shoppers likely won’t give it a second glance. But call it “tea” and they become attentive and curious.
On the other hand, it may be a case of cultural appropriation. Westerners being unable to fully comprehend the nuances of Asian tea and tea drinking culture, they simplify things for themselves by removing the distinction between tea and herbal brew. Americans are especially fond of doing that — noodleless pho (what the heck?), chocolate lasagna (a dessert which has no noodles), crustless quiche and even bruschetta without bread. Why they can’t just give their franskensteins some other names instead of misusing the names of foreign dishes steeped in cultural significance, I have no idea.
But we’re Asians. Alex and I knew exactly what we were getting when we bought butterfly pea flowers. And we didn’t waste time trying it. If it was good, we intended to buy more. We opened the pack of butterfly pea flowers, threw some into cups and poured in hot water.
There was no distinctive taste nor aroma. My best description would be “weak tea”. Very weak tea, in fact. Alex, on the other hand, said it reminded her of furikake. It was a curiosity for us. But because we were unable to find anything particularly memorable with the flavor and aroma, we didn’t buy more.
It wasn’t until two months later as we entered the third week of the don’t-leave-house-because-there’s-a-nasty-bug-out-there that I thought about the herbal brews we bought in Chiang Mai. Here at home, we have different drinking habits. Our firstborn, Sam, likes fruit juices and Asian flavored milk and yogurt. Alex, our younger girl, is a tea-drinker, and she’s partial to jasmine tea. My husband, Speedy, likes ginger brew. And I love coffee. But, you know, there comes a time when the taste buds yearn for variety. And I thought about all those dried plants in teabags that we bought in Chiang Mai.
I brought out the pack of butterfly pea flowers, took photos, dropped the flowers into a glass measuring cup and poured in hot water, and took photos. But because I already found the brew too bland for my taste back in Chiang Mai, I wanted to add lemon slices.
I left the butterfly tea flowers steeping on the dining table and moved to the kitchen to slice a lemon. I took an old wine bottle from the buffet cabinet, rinsed it and dropped the lemon slices inside with a few pieces of ice. Meanwhile, the butterfly tea flower brew had sufficiently cooled to be poured into the wine bottle with no danger of the glass shattering into a mess. As I poured, my eyes grew wide with amazement.
At first, I thought the light was playing tricks. It was still daylight and I didn’t turn on the kitchen lights. I thought it was just the shadows that made the liquid appear purple. Not so. But I wouldn’t learn that until an hour or two later.
Happy with the aesthetics of the drink I had prepared, I took a lot of effort to faithfully reproduce the colors in photos. I took the wine glass and drinking glass to the living room and, with the fading light as a backdrop, I took several photos.
Later, as I was preparing to write about my butterfly pea flower brew, I did a little Googling. There is an explanation as to why the drink turned from blue to purple. The introduction of something acidic changes the pH balance of the brew and, as a result, the color changes.
Butterfly Pea is Clitoria ternatea
It was in November 16, 2008. Sam and I were walking around the neighborhood looking for anything worth taking photos of. We passed by a neighbor’s garden and there were vines with lavender-colored flowers shaped like butterflies. I took several photos.
Fast forward to a few hours ago. I rummaged through my external drive to locate the photos from 2008. Surely, those are butterfly pea flowers? But… Okay, the shocker. I discovered that the scientific name of butterfly pea is Clitoria ternatea. Reading the name made me do a double take. Really? It sounded, well… naughty. Surely the butterfly pea flower look more like a butterfly with spread wings than a woman’s genitalia?
I read some more. Clitoria is a genus, there are several species all of which have similar-looking flowers. Apparently, the naming of the genus was a subject of controversy for a century. Long and short story, the name has survived.
In case you’re wondering — it was a male, German-born botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius, who was responsible for the name. That was back in 1678 when he described the first species he encountered in Indonesia as Flos clitoridis ternatensibus.
Yes, I felt it was. So, I Googled “plant named after male genitalia” just for, well… balance. I came up with Amorphophallus titanum which translates to “gigantic penis”. The name was coined by one W.H. Hodge. Men and their fantasies, right?
Now, this Amorphophallus titanum grows in the wild only in Sumatra, Indonesia where it is known as bunga bangkai. Bunga is flower; bangkai is corpse. Reason for the name? It smells like a rotting corpse. I bet Mr. W.H. Hodge did not take the odious odor of the flower into the equation when he did his naming. Serves him right.