Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please

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THAI cooking has no lack of pungent (note: this is subjective) but yummy food items. I don’t even classify durians—and especially Thai durians—within this category yet. Sator is one classic example, although the culinary use of these stinky beans is not restricted to Thais only as the Malays and Peranakans are also known to whip up superb stink-bean dishes (think prawn and petai sambal).

Another strong-smelling favourite of mine is cha-om (ชะอม) or acacia leaf. The tropical variant (Acacia pennata) of the acacia family, the leaves are commonly used in Thai, Lao and Burmese cooking. And these leaves can be quite a stink bomb indeed. When I brought them home from the market, the leaves stank up my kitchen and fridge, as though someone let off a vicious, lingering fart.

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But offensive smells aside, the fresh acacia stalks mesmerised me to bits. The way Thai vendors handle their greens are often a showcase of ingenuity. For this cha-om bundle, a banana leaf was folded and wrapped around the stalk ends as a base, with a thin bamboo strip securely tied around as a clip.

However, closer inspection of these feathery bundles would reveal tiny thorns on the cha-om stems, so do exercise caution when plucking the fronds off the stems.

One of the best ways to taste the inherent goodness of this vegetable is through khai jiao cha-om (ไข่เจียวชะอม) or acacia omelette, which is very easy to make; the steps are similar to how one would cook minced pork omelette, for example.

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[Recipe] Break the eggs into a bowl, add the plucked cha-om leaves and whisk the mixture. Add a pinch of salt and few drops of soya/fish sauce. Heat up some oil on the skillet on high heat, then pour in the egg mixture. Unlike typical omelettes which require a rather thin film to cook well, cha-om omelette should be rather thick and the mixture should come to a height of, say, 1/2 inch from the base. When one side of the the omelette is golden-brown, flip it over. When both sides are evenly cooked, remove the omelette from the skillet and place them on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. When the omelette is sufficiently cool enough, use a knife to cut them into square chunks or slices, depending on preference.

The offending smell would have disappeared by now, leaving a fragrant omelette of yellows, greens and browns. Serve the omelette on top of steamed rice, dunked into kaeng som (Thai sour curry) or dip them into naam phrik kapi (chilli dip). Whichever way it is, the omelette is guaranteed to be potent yet pleasing.

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3 thoughts on “Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please

  1. Pingback: Yanang leaves and Lao bamboo soup | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

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