Ginger flowers add zest to food

Ginger flowers are eaten in many Southeast-Asian cultures. In Indonesia, most ginger varieties are known from Siberut Island. The native population of this island has utilized the flowers of Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior (Jack) R.M. Sm.) since ancient times for medical and culinary purposes. These plants are also known under Red Ginger Lily and other local names. The Mentawai people call them ‘Tairatti’.

Brief description

These flowers have elongated buds on tall stalks with green, fleshy, fibrous stems. The buds are oval-shaped, about 10cm long, and are covered by protective, modified leaf coverings known as bracts.

When the flowers are young, they form a flame-like shape while tightly closed. As they bloom, the bracts open up, revealing small and colorful flower petals ranging from pink and red to white. Torch Ginger buds have a crisp texture with a piquant, sweet, sour flavor. They emit a sweet, floral, and ginger-like scent.

Use and Nutritional Value

When Mentawai people cook for larger family gatherings in connection with ceremonies, Torch ginger flowers will be boiled together with meat. Also, the lower parts of young, succulent stems will be used for cooking. On such occasions, chicken meat will most often be boiled. The gingery, even lemon-like, zesty smell of these flowers perfectly fits that meat.

Besides acting as a flavoring agent, Torch Ginger flowers are rich in fiber, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and antioxidants like vitamin C. They also contain significant amounts of calcium and zinc.  

Nyonya cuisine

Besides jungle cooking, Torch Ginger flowers are one of the signature elements of the Nyonya cuisine in Southeast Asia. This cuisine has been an established cooking style since the 15th century when Chinese immigrants migrated from the Chinese southern coastal areas to what is nowadays Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. They blended their traditional Chinese cooking techniques with tropical Southeast Asian ingredients, creating dishes with new and complex flavorings, textures, and aromas.

The Chinese used soy-bean sauce for flavoring their dishes, whereas Southeast Asians relied on fermented fish sauces. The Chinese added ginger flowers with their citrus- and gingery flavor to mask the fishy notes of local dishes. This was regarded as so successful that they became an everyday flavor of the Nyonya cuisine.

Lessons learned from wild ginger flowers:

  • Torch ginger is also known as Red Ginger lily.
  • Flower buds and young succulent stems are boiled together with meat.
  • Chicken meat, in particular, goes well with these flowers.
  • Besides being a vegetable for flavoring, it contains valuable minerals and phytochemical medical properties.
  • Ginger flowers are also an integral part of Nyonya cuisine in Southeast Asia.

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