Food ingredient

Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu)

There seems to be much confusion and misinformation in western culinary publications and in the food pages of major newspapers about the alleged culinary use of betel leaf, called bai plu in Thai and Lao; bai = leaf, plu = name of the leaf. We do not use it in Thai cuisine and it’s wrong to say that it is the leaf used to wrap a common Thai snack called miang kam.

Betel Leaves
Betel leaves - bai plu

In most of Southeast Asia, the betel leaf is used largely for the chewing of areca nut (erroneously called “betel nut” by colonialists) and as a medicinal herb. It has a very intense taste – bitter, hot, and unpleasantly medicinal – and can numb the tongue. Such a strongly flavored leaf would be far from the leaf of choice among sensible cooks for wrapping the tasty tidbits in miang kam; It would only ruin the intricate balance of flavors of such a delightful Thai snack.

Bunch of Bai Cha Plu
A bunch of bai cha plu

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

The leaf used in wrapping miang kam is instead the “wild pepper leaf” – bai cha plu in Thai and Lao. Like the betel leaf, it is a member of the pepper genus (botanically, “Piper”) and. therefore, the two are related but far from being the same, just as lemons and oranges are different fruits though both are citrus. The botanical name of betel leaf is “Piper betel,” often spelled “Piper betle,” which gives it its common name, whereas the edible leaf with culinary uses is “Piper sarmentosum”. It would be more accurate to call the latter “wild pepper leaf” rather than “wild betel leaf” as it is sometimes called (again wrongly just as is the case with areca nut) since it has little to do with “betel” other than being in the same large “Piper” family with many other prominent relatives. Doing so only confuses aspiring cooks interested in learning to prepare Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisines who end up buying the wrong leaf to use.

Plu or “betel” is a woody evergreen vine that prefers growing on high ground since it dislikes wet soils, whereas cha plu is a herbaceous creeper that naturally grows along streams in lowland forests, preferring damp soils. This difference already sets the two plants a world apart. Besides, I believe the origins of the two differ – “betel” is native to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whereas cha plu‘s home is the tropical heartland of Southeast Asia. The reason for the confusion between the two, aside from the improper naming by western sources, stems from the similar shape and color of the leaves and the difficulty of telling which is which from a distance. Both have large, glossy, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. But when the two are placed side by side, the differences are apparent. bai plu is much larger, thicker, tougher and more leathery with a smoother appearance, while bai cha plu is thinner, more tender and has much more veining in-between the main vertical lines giving it a crinkly appearance (see pictures below for comparison).

Bai Cha Plu
Bai cha plu
Bai Plu - Betel Leaf
Bai plu - betel leaf

Sweet Potato Leaf
A type of sweet potato leaf

(This is a leaf of a type of sweet potato – don’t mistake it for bai cha plu!)

Because of their similar appearance, even some Thais can confuse one for the other if shown just one leaf. For this reason and the way it is cultivated and harvested, bai plu or betel leaf is almost always sold as single leaves, occasionally bundled together with a strip of the outer covering of banana stem. In fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand, it is usually found in the “smoke shop” – i.e., the stall that sells fresh or dried areca nuts and tobacco. Seldom is it ever found among vegetables at fresh produce stalls. Bai cha plu, on the other hand, is always sold still attached to a stem in the company of several other leaves and is sold in bunches alongside other vegetables (see picture, below, of vegetable stall in Sukhothai market).

Vegetable Vendor
Vendor, bai cha plu to right

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two leaves are sold in a similar fashion as above. Betel leaves can be found in single leaves in a large bag, usually near dried areca nuts (yes, there are Southeast Asian immigrants here who still chew them as a stimulant) or the checkout stand and you can buy one or as many leaves as you wish, while “wild pepper leaves” are sold still attached to stems (usually the terminal ends of young vines) and most often, already packaged in plastic bags. At $7 to $20 a pound, depending on availability, it’s hard to confuse it with a common and much cheaper summer vegetable (a kind of sweet potato leaves – see picture, above) which comes in large bunches with similar-shaped but thinner, smaller and non-shiny leaves at 99 cents a pound.

Miang Kam For Sale
Packaged Miang Kam sets

The Thai name cha plu is a recognizable one to Lao and Cambodian shopkeepers, so you can ask them to verify whether you are buying the right leaves. In the East (San Francisco) Bay where I live, I have no trouble finding cha plu in three Oakland stores during the warmer months of the year – Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) Market on International Blvd. and 14th Ave, Thien Loi Hoa on East 12th Street at 12th Ave, and occasionally bulk at the Laos International Market on International between 16th and 17th Aves. During the winter and early spring when the weather is still quite cold, this tropical vegetable may be hard to come by and has to be shipped in from Hawaii.

Yum Sadet Salad
Yum sadet salad

Bai cha plu has become so closely associated with Miang Kam that among Thais it is frequently given the nickname bai miang (bai = leaf), although another tasty, large and fairly thick, oblong leaf called bai tonglang is also used for this snack. The latter, however, is now rarely available as fewer growers cultivate it. Besides Miang Kam, cha plu accompanies many kinds of spicy salads as a wrapper since its size, resilience and peppery flavor make it a good leaf for this purpose. Among them is the delicious and fiery hot yum sadet pictured here from Reun Mai restaurant in Krabi – a mixture of shrimp, fried cashews, fried dried cuttlefish, chopped ginger, lemon grass, Thai chillies, chopped lime with peel, shredded green mango and other ingredients that combine perfectly to set off the fuse for a big explosion of flavor in the mouth, the bai cha plu adding both flavor and texture.

Miang Takrai
Miang Takrai, Sudapon restaurant

Another salad pictured here – Miang Takrai (Lemongrass Miang) – comes from the charming Sudapon restaurant in Trang – a sweet-and-sour combination of myriad chopped ingredients and featuring thinly sliced lemon grass and sweet shredded dried pork. There are other miang’s, too, that sometimes use bai cha plu as one of the leaves for wrapping, such as the miang bplah tu shown below from one of my classes, consisting of a tossed salad of finely shredded cooked “bplah tu” (a favorite, small mackerel plentiful in the Gulf of Thailand), slivered ginger, sliced lemon grass, sawtooth coriander, green onions, and a hot-and-sour dressing made with chopped Thai chillies and lime juice, to be wrapped in a leaf (either bai cha plu or lettuce) along with toasted shredded coconut, roasted peanuts and cilantro. Indeed a delicious combination! and a complete meal in itself served chilled on a hot summer day!

Miang Plah Too
Miang Bplah Tu

Bai cha plu is also shredded up as one of the vegetables in southern Thailand’s well-loved rice salad (kao yum) and cooked in whole leaves as a vegetable in pungent curries with chicken, shrimp or snails, where the leaves impart a distinctive flavor and aroma. cha plu is loaded with antioxidants and recent research indicates that it is protective against several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the lungs throat, stomach, intestines and bladder. It is rich in beta-carotenes, which the body can convert into valuable vitamin A if eaten along with good fats needed to store and transport this fat-soluble vitamin. In the case of a curry, the coconut milk provides the necessary fat. bai cha plu, however, does contain a fair amount of oxalates, which need to be offset by eating it with sufficient protein such as the seafood or other meats in a curry, and by drinking lots of water to flush out the oxalates from the body.

Betel Nut Sets
Betel nut sets with rolled betel leaves

As for betel leaf, I know of no culinary use for this strong-tasting leaf with known stimulant qualities. Some sources here in the Bay Area say the Vietnamese use it for wrapping meats for grilling, but when I ask recent immigrants from Vietnam, I am told the leaf used for this purpose is not the betel leaf, but the “wild pepper leaf”. They all tell me that betel leaf is only used for the chewing of areca nut and for medicinal purposes and that it is much too strong and stimulating for consuming as a vegetable. In fact, a Cambodian friend told me recently that he once ate a betel leaf and it kept him frazzled most of the day!

In wrapping areca nut for chewing, the betel leaf is not ingested, but spitted out. Betel leaf is a stimulant and so is areca nut, but the stimulant property of both is absorbed through the blood vessels lining the inside of the mouth and not through the digestive tract. Although it has many medicinal benefits and is used in age-old Ayurvedic medicine in India, the unusually higher rate of oral cancer among people who chew “betel nut” has led some scientists to speculate that the betel leaf might possibly be the culprit. In the absence of further studies to prove or disprove this suspicion, it would be prudent to be cautious and avoid eating the betel leaf as a substitute for the nutritious “bai chaplu”. There’s no telling whether it might contribute to the risk of other cancers if it is ingested.

Miang Kam
Miang Kam bite on bai cha plu

In a Thai-language book about 108 myriad Thai vegetables (the number 108 is often used to describe plentiful abundance in varieties), the author is quick to point out that the flavorful bai cha plu with all its wonderful nutritional properties, “often feels horribly slighted” by people who erroneously identify it as betel leaf. Somehow in the West, culinary personalities, like the colonialists before them, are confused. Just as the areca nut has been “slighted” for centuries by being called “betel nut”, the “wild pepper leaf” is likewise being misunderstood as if it is the “betel” leaf. Why is it that the West has such a romanticized notion of the word “betel”?

Of further interest:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010.

ingredient Thai Culture

Moringa (“Marum”)

Moringa (Marum): a Nutritious Plant with Amazing Healing Powers

What is moringa oil and what is it used for?

Moringa Oil
Bottle of moringa oil

A bottle of moringa (marum in Thai) oil accidentally came into my possession last November, a week after I arrived in Thailand for my annual winter stay. My elderly mother and I were shopping at Seri Center in the outskirts of Bangkok. We walked by a small health products shop. I stopped in to buy herbal shampoo and hair conditioner.

Remembering Mother’s complaint of itchiness, I asked the proprietor if he had anything that might help, pointing to skin lesions on her legs and face from all the scratching. He took a close look and said she had a fungal infection, then pulled out a small bottle of “marum” oil from a cabinet, extolling its miraculous healing powers on all kinds of skin problems.

Marum? Isn’t that a vegetable used in gkaeng som (sour tamarind curry) or to accompany nahm prik (spicy chilli sauces with fermented shrimp paste)?”

Moringa Plant
Moringa pods, or drumsticks

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

“That’s right. The oil is from the seeds. Haven’t you heard that all parts of the plant have exceptional nutritional value and medicinal properties? Marum has become very popular among the health-conscious.” He handed me an information sheet with a long list of conditions it’s capable of treating, including modern day ailments as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer, and raving testimonials from people who’d used it with amazing results. “It’s become the best selling item I carry and I often run out. It’s hard to keep enough in stock since the Japanese have been buying up massive quantities to use in their cosmetics. They’ve discovered that marum oil has very beneficial qualities to keep skin healthy and reverse damage from detrimental environmental conditions.”

“So,” I thought to myself, “this is the new “in” thing since I was here last year.” Preferring natural remedies based on age-old herbal wisdom to modern chemical-based medicines, I was curious to give this new oil a try. It wasn’t exactly cheap: 300 baht for a tiny 30 ml. bottle, quite expensive in Thai terms.

Moringa Leaves
Moringa leaves

But back to the bottle of oil I bought for my mother. She got to use it for only a couple of days before my sister, who’s her primary caregiver, decided her fungal infection was too serious to depend on an herbal remedy and took her to the hospital to see a dermatologist. Standard antibiotic medical ointments, soap and shampoo were prescribed that eventually alleviated the problem.

I would find out in the ensuing weeks and months of my stay that marum has indeed attained star status among health-conscious Thais, but whether it’s just a fad that would diminish over time remains to be seen. There’re articles about it in newspapers and magazines, including food publications complete with recipes. Books about its healing powers are widely distributed. There are marum capsule food supplements, tea and coffee made from the dried leaves, soaps made from the charred bark, herbal shampoo and hair conditioner and various ointments and salves, among a plethora of “marum” products.

Moringa Flowers
Moringa flowers

The bottle of moringa oil ended up in my hands. I gave the information sheet a more thorough read and took note that it could prevent scarring from cuts and burns and even diminish the appearance of old scar tissue. I decided to do an experiment. There’re these two dark acne scars on my face from my youth, one on either side just under the eyes. Each morning and evening, I would dab the two dark spots with a drop of the oil, rubbing the excess around the corner of the eyes. I did this on and off during the three months I was in Thailand, mostly off when leading my tours kept me busy.

The bottle of moringa oil returned with me to California in mid-February. The two dark spots on my face were still there, so I decided to continue using it. Now that my daily routine wasn’t disrupted by checking in and out of hotels and being cramped for space staying in-between the tours at my sister’s small townhouse, I could really give this oil a chance by using it daily without interruption. Each morning and evening, I would dab a single drop on the two small spots and rub the remainder around the corner of my eyes. It became a routine that soon was automatic and out of mind.

Moringa Seeds
Winged moringa seeds

In mid-March, one of my advanced cooking students whom I hadn’t seen for at least a year surprised me by saying that I looked different. She insisted I looked years younger and my complexion had changed. She started earnestly questioning whether there had been major stress-reduction changes in my life, whether I was happier for some unexplained reason, whether I’d been doing anything differently the past year, such as using a new moisturizer on my face, etc., etc., etc. I was puzzled by her remarks. I hadn’t done anything differently in my life, hadn’t noticed anything different in the way I look and couldn’t think of anything that could have made a difference, during the busy hours of conducting the cooking class. I thought maybe it was the tan I brought back with me from Thailand, or maybe the color of the top I was wearing that complimented my complexion especially well, or maybe she’s just being sweet and making a compliment to make me feel good.

That night after I washed my face, I automatically reached for the moringa oil. Suddenly it dawned on me that using the oil was what I had been doing differently lately. I took a closer look in the mirror. “The two dark spots are still there but my skin does look smoother and more supple,” I said to myself. “Wait a minute! The crow’s feet on the side of my eyes, they’re gone!” Now that’s a miracle!

So What Is Moringa?

Books About Moringa
Books about moringa

My curiosity led me to do a little research to learn more about moringa. To my amazement, there’s a plethora of information about this miracle plant. The following is a summary of my discoveries.

Moringa oleifera is a slender, medium-size tree with drooping branches and pretty, lacy leaf fronds, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fast-growing and drought resistant tree is widely cultivated in India and Southeast Asia, as well as in tropical and sub-tropical areas of Africa, Central Asia and Central and South America. Known as one of the world’s most useful trees since ancient times (i.e., dating back to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras), most parts of the tree, from the leaves and long bean-like pods to the flowers and seeds, and to some extent, the roots and bark, are edible and exceptionally nutritious.

In addition to being a valuable source of food, moringa is a medicinal plant, which in India’s age-old Ayuvedic tradition can prevent some 300 diseases. Parts of the tree also provide materials for industrial applications, such as lubrication oil for fine machinery, water filtration and purification, tanning of hides, the production of compost fertilizer, insecticide, charcoal, rope and paper, and the manufacture of perfume, cosmetics and hair care products..

The edible green pods, commonly called “drumsticks” because of its long, straight and slender shape, give the tree its common name of “drumstick tree”. Another common name is “horseradish tree” as the root, which has a hot flavor, is sometimes used as a condiment much like horseradish, but it is NOT to be confused with true horseradish and eating the root more than sparingly is not recommended since it contains an alkaloid that can cause nerve damage.

Moringa Oil Products
Moringa oil products

In Thailand, marum is a common vegetable in the rural countryside, cooked in the traditional ways of the different regions. The young pods, leaves, and flowers are usually lightly blanched to accompany various kinds of chili sauces (nahm prik), or cooked in hot and sour curries and soups. In some northeastern provinces, a mixture of dried marum leaves and other herbs is used as a flavor enhancer. The tree is often grown as living fences around homes, providing a source of nourishment as well as materials for a variety of household uses.

A significant amount of scientific research has been conducted in many countries over the past 20 years on the nutritional and medicinal benefits of moringa, including America at a number of prestigious institutions such as the John Hopkins School of Medicine. The research confirms the leaves to be a powerhouse of nutrition, containing, ounce for ounce, seven times more vitamin C than oranges, four times more beta-carotene than carrots (precursor to vitamin A), three times more potassium than bananas, and four times more calcium and two times more protein than fresh milk. The quality of the protein is said to rival that of eggs and milk, but some studies have found that the calcium is bound up in oxalate crystals, a form not readily available to the body. The leaves also contain more iron than spinach and are high in magnesium and fiber.

Moringa Leaf Capsules
Moringa leaf capsules

The young immature green pods are also extremely nutritious, containing all the essential amino acids and many vitamins and other nutrients. The flowers, which should not be eaten raw, are rich in potassium and calcium. The seeds in mature pods yield 38 to 40 percent of a clear, sweet edible oil (called Ben oil because of the high concentration of behenic acid), that resists rancidity. Its nutritional value is said to closely resemble olive oil. Because of the amazing abundance of nutrition, moringa has been used to combat malnutrition and starvation in third-world countries.

Most parts of the moringa tree possess healing properties and are used in the traditional herbal medicine of many countries. Moringa contains powerful anti-microbial substances and its antibiotic and antiseptic properties are well documented. It is extremely rich in antioxidants that reduce damage to the body from environmental stress and help maintain heart heath. It strengthens the immune system; regulates blood pressure to prevent high blood pressure and blood sugar levels to prevent diabetes; detoxifies and protect the liver and kidneys from damage from toxins; and maintains reproductive health. It has also been used to prevent and treat tumors and different kinds of cancers, asthma, allergies, gout, bleeding gums, constipation and a host of other health problems, including inflammation (e.g. rheumatism, arthritis, joint pain), skin diseases, and disorders of the circulatory, endocrine, digestive and nervous systems.

Moreover, the oil expressed from moringa seeds is excellent as a first aid to cuts, burns, bruises, sores in the mouth, nose and ears and any fresh wounds, helping them heal without scarring while providing antiseptic protection from infection. It can be used as a massage oil to relieve fatigue in the muscles and rubbed on the head to reduce hair loss and relieve headaches. It’s also very effective on snake and insect bites to reduce swelling and itchiness and remove poisons..

Other benefits of moringa that have received much interest in recent years include anti-ageing properties. The plant contains substances that maintain vision and help slow the degeneration of cells in the vital organs, optic nerves and arteries. Some cultures believe there are special substances in the plant that nourish the brain and can prevent Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain illnesses among the elderly.

Action Plan

Moringa Tea & Pods
Moringa tea & seeds

All the valuable information about moringa’s nutritional and healing powers has motivated me to seek out moringa leaves and pods to cook and add to my diet, especially during the warmer months of the year in California when they are available in some ethnic markets. The young drumsticks, which need to be peeled before cooking, can be prepared in a similar way as green beans and are said to have a slight asparagus taste. The mature pods yield winged seeds that may be eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach and the flowers are said to taste like mushrooms.

I’ve seen the drumsticks at Bay Area farmers’ markets in past summers, so I will be looking for them. I recently found the leaves at our local Cambodian market in Oakland (Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) on International Blvd.) but I have yet to cook it as a spur-of-the-moment trip to Thailand on news of my mother’s deteriorating health took me away from my kitchen.

Being back in Thailand during a time of heightened personal interest in moringa has given me the opportunity to search out moringa products to try out. Will they surprise me with other miracles? I didn’t have to look hard. The products are everywhere and demand for them has likely increased as revealed by rising prices. I have now in my possession moringa shampoo and conditioner, moringa lip balm, moringa tea, moringa capsule food supplement, moringa soap, dried moringa seeds, two books on moringa with recipes, and a dozen more bottles of moringa oil for myself and my friends.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010