The variety of herbs and spices used in Malaysian cooking is incredible until you realize this is where all the spices came from in the first place. Plenty of spices like cloves, cinnamon, and pepper are traded around the world. Some, for whatever reason, are still unknown outside of the region. One of these is Bunga Kantan, known in English as Torch Ginger and in Latin as Etlingera elatior. Bunga Kantan is in the ginger family, and sends green shoots out from large rhizomes just like common ginger, but the shoots are enormous, capable of growing several meters in height when the plant is happily established. Down at the base of the plant, smaller shoots are produced that at first look like the leafy ones, but soon take on a pinkish cast at the tip. These shoots, which only grow about a foot tall, slowly open up into thick, fleshly, deep pink petals that resemble flowers. I suppose they are flowers, except they don’t appear to have a reproductive function. They are gorgeous enough to cut for table ornaments, and you might sometimes see them used as such in hotels or fancy restaurants.
[Update: they sure do have a reproductive function. My Kantan has reached enormous proportions, and left undisturbed, the flowers have developed fruit. Picture forthcoming.] But their primary use is culinary. Bunga Kantan has a wonderful fresh spicy flavour. It holds its pink color even when cooked, adding a lovely look to a dish. It is an essential ingredient in the famous sour fish soup, Laksa Penang. The use of it together with mint is typical for Vietnamese-style rice or noodles in fast food stalls here, though how truly that represents Vietnamese food I don’t really know. It’s a fairly expensive ingredient, as much as a ringgit a stalk, making it a worthwhile plant to grow for the kitchen.
Bunga Kantan can also be seen in the ornamental landscape, as it is here, growing in a corner of PutraJaya, Malaysia’s new show-piece capitol city. There are varieties with different flower colors, like white, and pastel pink. The plant has an incurably wild look to it, but fits nicely in tropical-style landscapes.[Update: A thousand apologies! I thought I had photographed a bunga kantan in PutraJaya last year but on visiting my photo archives at work found only an ornamental banana, which I’ve duly added to the banana post. Did I really see a bunga kantan there too on that trip or is my memory playing tricks on me? – ed.]