“Would you like to try butterfly pea flower tea?” asked a friend, as we were getting ready to order drinks at a small restaurant in George Town. After several days eating and drinking my way through this charming town on the Malaysian island of Penang, I knew that I had to say yes. George Town’s legacy as a trading entrepôt is its blend of cultures — Malay, Chinese, Indian —that results in a diverse and vibrant cuisine. A standard hotel map will organise the town’s sightseeing locations by the different delicacies one can taste around its neighbourhoods, from noodle soups and seafood curries to coconut-scented cakes and dim sum. Of course, I had to try the butterfly pea flower tea.
When the tea came, it was the colour of sapphire, an intense, vivid blue. Crushed lemongrass stalks gave it a heady floral and citrusy perfume. As my friend explained, butterfly pea flowers have a mild earthy taste, and the tea — or, more properly, tisane — is mixed with other ingredients to give it a bolder flavour, such as fragrant herbs and spices. The colour, however, is so striking that it’s a beloved ingredient in drinks, cakes and even savoury dishes such as nasi kerabu – rice with coconut chicken or fish and a variety of accompaniments. Local lore has it that butterfly pea flower tisane is rejuvenating and toning. I mostly found it mesmerising.
While outside southeast Asia butterfly pea flowers are still an exotic ingredient, tea boutiques and specialist stores are starting to feature them in different forms. In Malaysia, the cobalt-blue blossoms are normally used fresh from the vine, but they’re just as excellent and richly coloured when dried. A teaspoon of dried flowers per cup of hot water is enough to turn it azure, while a couple of buds will give it a delicate hue. Ginger, cinnamon and honey will make the tisane warming and perfect for cold winter days, while a touch of passionfruit juice and lemon zest lends a tropical flair. Adding an acidic ingredient like tart fruit or citrus juice will change the pH balance and transform the colour of the infusion into purple and shades of red. Although less intensely coloured, blue mallow flowers (£3 for 5g) and cornflowers (£3 for 5g, both from Sous Chef) may be substituted.
One of the most interesting blends with butterfly pea flowers is Yuzu Indigo (€20 for 100g) from the venerable French tea purveyor Mariage Frères. Green tea leaves are blended with blue flowers in sufficient proportion to give the liquor a tint of Persian turquoise, while yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that smells of clementine and pine resin, sets the bright top notes. From colour to fragrance to taste, it’s a complete sensory experience and an ideal cure for the winter woes.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.comsince 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.