For the past few weekends, I felt like an alchemist in my kitchen. I had been boiling water, scalding flowers and tinkering with colours in a quest to achieve a desired potion.
Sounds too far-fetched? In reality, it’s just butterfly pea flowers that have piqued my interest in creating natural colour extracts. I bought a batch of butterfly pea flowers so I was very eager to try my hands at extracting colours from them. These blue extracts are often used in Malay and Peranakan cooking to dye rice and desserts—now I finally know where kueh salat got its colour from—while in Thailand they are commonly made into a blue/purple drink called naam dork anchan (น้ำดอกอัญชัน). I got the inspiration to brew my own blue potion following recent visits to several hotels in Thailand and Laos that served their welcome drinks made from butterfly pea flowers.
The common names of this tropical Asian plant—butterfly pea or blue pea—sound innocuous in English but its scientific name is way more blush-inducing: Clitoria ternatea. This herbal plant is so named because of the shape of its flowers, which, with vivid blue hues and light yellow markings, supposedly resemble a particular female anatomy, but you have to look at the flower from its front to get the idea. (I think whoever named this flower must surely be a man!)
[Recipe] Extracting colours from butterfly pea flowers is easy peasy. Place the flowers in a bowl or container, add hot water and then wait for the colours to infuse into the water. Initially I used around 20 flowers to two cups of water, and an indigo-blue hue was yielded. I decided to go for a less intense blue so I soaked five flowers instead. This time round the colour created was a lovely cobalt blue, which reminded me very much of chemistry experiments during my schooling days.
After the colours have infused into the water, pass it through a sieve to remove the flowers and any loose petals. The flowers would have imparted a strong floral note to the water, so stir in some honey or sugar to the desired sweetness and your butterfly pea drink is ready.
Now more fun—and magic—is under way. Adding a few drops of lime will increase the acidity of the water and change its colour to purple. I could see twirls of purple slowly spreading across the water after I squeezed some drops of lime juice. Serve the tea warm or chilled, with or without lime, but the lovely hues of blues and purples are sure to impress!
Butterfly pea flowers provide an inexpensive and organic way to extract natural colourings without having to rely on artificial food dyes and will certainly make good kitchen science experiments for those with kids at home, don’t they?