This weekend I persuaded a friend to join me in getting up early to go scouting for kapok flowers. They are in full bloom at the moment and I wanted to get some! You might ask why…?
Well, the pinkish red flowers are undoubtedly very beautiful, but the purpose was not to make a bouquet. It would probably also prove a bit challenging since – like many flowers growing on a tree – they don’t grow on a regular stem, but instead, they attach in clusters directly to the branches.
The reason behind our little outing was rather to collect the flowers for cooking. The stamens are dried and used to add scent and flavor to the very delicious classic northern Thai dish “Khanom Jin Nam Ngiao”.
Kapok trees – known as Bombax Ceiba Linn (scientific name), Bombacaceae (family name), Cotton tree (common name) and a number of local names such as Ngio dok daeng, Ngio luang, Ngio daeng, Ngio pong, Ngio ban – are very tall. There are numerous flowers blooming at the very top of the tree, and interestingly enough there are usually no leaves on the trees when the flowers are in bloom, making them easily visible.
Unless you have monkey-like abilities, it is hard to get to the flowers. Instead, you wait until they drop to the ground and then collect them. I had already spotted a few trees in my neighborhood – one nearby, and another a bit further away. So, we ventured off with a paper bag for the flowers, hoping we would be able to fill it.
By the first tree, we only found a few in the tall grass surrounding the trunk. There were not that many on the tree and only a few had dropped. The second tree was bigger with a lot more flowers on it. But someone else had already beaten us to it!! An elderly lady living across the street followed our moves closely as we cruised around the tree searching for flowers. We found a few – but not enough to satisfy my appetite! So the following day, I got up even earlier. The gate to the lady’s house was locked and she was nowhere to be seen, allowing me a free pass to gather up every single flower that had dropped during the night. My mission was accomplished!
Back at home I removed the petals and collected the stamens on a flat basket. It is quite easy to separate the petals from the stamens, which are small pieces of art in itself. I will now leave them to dry in the sun for the next few days, after which we will move on to some cooking! So stay tuned and I will soon share the superb Khanom Jin Nam Ngiao recipe.
Where do kapok trees grow beside most of Thailand (excluding the south)? The tree originates from Central – and South America, but today they are also found in South East Asia, India, Yunan, Africa and Australia. I have seen the trees in the Annapurna region of Nepal as well, but to my knowledge, the Nepalese don’t use the flowers or the dried seed heads for cooking like they do in Thailand.
Don’t fret, if you want to try cooking with the dried stamens, but live in a place with no access to kapok flowers. I have thought out a solution for that. To learn more, click here.