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Curious Cook: Autumn tales from rural France

Curious Cook: Autumn tales from rural France

The Hidden France tour

A few weeks ago, I was walking my dog in the evening when a coach stopped outside the hotel in the village centre and started disgorging a gaggle of Chinese tourists. They saw us and started talking to me excitedly in Mandarin, a dialect which I do not understand – so I responded in Cantonese which agitated them even more. Eventually I found out from their tour guide that the group was doing a tour of “Hidden France” (or something like that), visiting places which are way off the usual tourist routes. Hence their surprise at meeting a Chinese man walking a pug in a remote French village at one of their first stops.

From a description of their itinerary around the village the next day, I doubt they will ever come back. The plan was a visit to some local minor historical sites, then a cheese farm which I know to be extraordinarily odorous, so much so even French people gag when visiting. That was then to be followed by a typical local lunch at the farm restaurant – this would usually be a starter plate of various pates and terrines, then a dish called “truffade” comprising of cooked cheeses with potatoes, bacon and locally-cured dark ham, followed by a selection of regional cheeses and a cream-based dessert.

Considering that statistics show around 90% of Chinese are genetically lactose-intolerant, this does not bode well for their “Hidden France” plans for the rest of the day after lunch. Presumably, the group would also be plied with strong wines as per the local custom for lunches – this again would not help the statistical 30+% of the group unable to digest alcohol efficiently. If you are curious why, please read this story.

Chinese dairy industry

For fun, I looked into China’s statistics for dairy production, and found some surprising facts. The country is now the world’s largest importer of fresh/liquid milk – and on top of that, China is also the third largest producer of milk globally at around 36 million tonnes a year. By comparison, France produces less than 24 million tonnes, and is ranked seventh. However, the tolerance of lactose within the country has not increased, so 90% of China’s population will feel some negative effects when consuming dairy products past their bodies’ sufferance levels. This anomalous behaviour appears to be linked to dairy foods being perceived as a sign of affluence and “fashionable” as it is very much a Western tradition. And curiously, increasing nationwide dairy consumption has been part of Chinese government policy since 2007.

And in case you are wondering, no, I do not understand it either – maybe the Chinese really like ice cream, pizza or something like that.

Is this even worse?

However, despite the likely discomfort that would be suffered by some of the intrepid Chinese tourists in the village, their woes might pale compared to people eating another type of food.

The nutritional content label on a bag of rice.

The nutritional label pictured above is from a packet of basmati rice bought in Kuala Lumpur by a friend and sent to me here. If the label is correct, then it is curious and alarming to see both potassium and lead paired together as an item in the nutritional list. For one, the potassium content of basmati rice hovers at around a maximum of 55mg per 100g, which means that the lead content cannot be much less than 96.5mg per 100g. For another, lead is not a nutritional metal by any definition: it is in fact a toxic metal linked to several dangerous conditions, including brain damage in young children, cardiovascular problems and kidney damage in adults.

Finally, 96.5mg of lead per 100g is a staggering amount, considering that the EU Food Safety Authority and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (jointly run by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization) both established a maximum of 0.02mg per 100g of rice. This rice would be banned in the EU, and should not be consumed anywhere else.

After double-checking the data, I immediately advised my friend to throw away the rice, preferably without touching the grains.


Out of curiosity, I did some research on the available options to treat lead poisoning, and the main technique is the use of various compounds to remove the lead from body tissues, particularly blood. This involves a chemical process called “chelation”, which is defined as the binding of chelating compounds to various metal ions, forming less harmful chelates which can then be excreted from the body. Chelation can only remove from the body a proportion of the targeted metal – it does not repair any damage that had already been done. An interesting 2016 paper from the American College of Cardiology on the results of the TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy) study on 1,708 people found that test subjects exposed to lead increased the excretion of body lead up to 3,830% using the chelating agent edetate disodium. Perhaps more significantly, the TACT study indicated that major cardiac events were reduced by 18% in normal subjects and a remarkable 52% in subjects with diabetes (a disease associated with a higher risk of cardiac problems) by chelation therapy using edetate disodium.

Other claimed chelating agents are 2,3 Dimercaptosuccinic Acid (DMSA), Racemic-2,3-dimercapto-1-propanesulfonic acid (DMPS) and B-dimethylcysteine (penicillamine) though there is not much data about their effectiveness and some of them have notable adverse side effects. There is also a quack industry based around chelation therapy which tries to obscure the facts behind various chelation agents. I hope you are careful about what you ingest and never have to undergo chelation therapy.


Autumn is the season for gathering wild mushrooms in the French countryside, a fun hobby for me but probably very dangerous if it is not done with expert knowledge as it can lead to a fatal dose of mycetism (mushroom poisoning). In any case, I try not to overdo it due to the complex nature of toxins found even in edible wild mushrooms – more on this later.

Mushroom hunting is known as “la chasse aux champignons” or “la cueillette de champignons” and is one of the national hobbies of France, with people grinning with anticipation when embarking on early morning trips to their secret locations. Despite their enthusiasm (or probably because of it), over a thousand cases of wild mushroom poisoning are treated each year with several deaths reported. Some severe cases also require liver transplants, so it is a hobby fraught with significant risks – there are several thousand species of mushrooms but only a handful are edible. In many ways, wild mushrooms are to the French what fugu fish is to the Japanese.


A poisonous mushroom.

In the forests, I very often come across the seriously toxic amanita phalloides (commonly called “death caps”), hallucinogenic amanita muscaria, blood coagulating clavulinopsis fusiformis, stomach cramp-inducing entoloma sinuatum, etc. But I only forage for two types specific to the region: a species known locally as “rouges” even though it is not red in colour (clitocybe nuda), and “cèpe des pins de montagne” (boletus pinicola).

Even though I often gather the two types of mushrooms together, I do not mix them when cooking – and they usually do need long cooking to denature some of the compounds inherent within them. There is no scientific reason why I do not mix them – it is a personal preference as each mushroom will have a group of denatured compounds after cooking and I feel it is not necessary to mix the two groups together.

The poisons found in deadly mushrooms are known as mycotoxins and no amount of cooking will destroy these compounds. The most dangerous mycotoxin is probably alpha-amadin which is found in death caps. This toxin will destroy the liver within three days of ingestion, often sooner.

Other deadly mycotoxins are orellanine (kidney failure), muscarine (neuromuscular disorder), monomethylhydrazine (brain damage), ibotenic acid (nerve cell damage) and ergotamine (cardiovascular failure).

Despite the sobering dangers of mycotoxins, good wild mushrooms are still delicious cooked with butter, onions, garlic, eggs and sprinkled over with chopped chives. Just do not ever pick up wild mushrooms if you are not sure.

Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
To know Malaysia is to love the bunga kantan

To know Malaysia is to love the bunga kantan

If I had to pick only one ingredient to represent Malaysian gastronomy, it would be the bunga kantan. The torch ginger flower has a special place in our collective heart and taste buds, wired into our psyche with our first taste of asam laksa and nasi ulam. Even haters cannot deny its powerful presence.

Bunga kantan is what gives many iconic Malaysian dishes their distinctive taste: asam laksa, nonya laksa, asam pedas, nasi ulam, nasi kerabu and the numerous kerabu salads. Unlike the chilli, it is a truly local ingredient. It grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions, from Hawaii to Congo and the Philippines, but it is native to Malaysia and Indonesia.

The torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) is one of the rainforest’s most spectacular blooms. The flowers are pink, red or white. The pink variety is the most floriferous and bears more flowers – that’s why it’s more common than the red while the white is quite rare. Market vendors will tell you that the larger redder variety is usually from Indonesia or Thailand. And if you find the bunga kantan hard to come by sometimes, it’s because it has a season of a sort. May is the peak season when it’s plentiful and cheap. From August through October, supply is limited and hence the higher prices. That’s also when you’ll find more red buds in the market.

Although the unopened flower, the bud, is the most commonly used part in cooking, the whole plant is edible: leaf, flower, fruit and seed. Its deeper culinary secrets lie with the natives living in and around the rainforest.

torch ginger flowers or bunga kantan

Torch ginger flowers are pink, red or white. The pink variety is the most floriferous and bears more flowers – that’s why it’s more common than the red while the white is quite rare.

In Sarawak, the Kelabits cook with the inner buds of the opened blossom, using it like a vegetable in stir-fries. The leaf can be used in the same way as turmeric leaf. The fruit, known as buah kechala – the Iban name for torch ginger – is also edible and used in cooking. Inside the individual pods that make up the fruit are pulp-coated seeds – like passion fruit pulp – capable of exploding in the mouth with a sour sensation.

We call it “bud” but the “petals” that make up the bud are not the actual flower; they are the bracts that protect the tiny true flowers that emerge later, in rings between the rows of bracts over the course of the 50 to 60 days that the plant will take to complete the spectacular blooming ritual.

torch ginger or bunga kantan

The unopened torch ginger flower, the bud, is the most commonly used part in cooking.

In gastronomy its identity is forged mostly in the Malay archipelago, the Nusantara region. In southern Thailand it’s served with nam prik sauce as part of a raw salad (ulam) and spices up khao jam, a rice salad that shares similar roots with the Malaysian nasi kerabu. Chef Korn Yodsuk of Erawan restaurant in Kuala Lumpur considers the bunga kantan more of a Malaysian spice. “We don’t use it a lot in Thai cooking. Just a few dishes in the south make use of the torch ginger; we use it more as cut flowers.”

This beautiful flower is associated with love – you cannot deny the phallic shape of the blushing bud. Korn shares that in Thailand the torch ginger is a symbol of cross-cultural love. When parental objections kept a Thai lad and Malay lass apart, the girl famously vowed that even after death, she’d return as a torch ginger flower to wait for him at the border gate.

Torch ginger buds are typically finely sliced and eaten raw as part of an aromatic garnish for salads and rice, or tossed into sour soups and curries. It’s traditionally paired with fish and seafood rather than meat, although it makes an inspired pairing with smoked beef or duck. But it’s really fish’s best friend as the citrusy and gingery flavours exalt the taste of fish and mask fishy odours.

In the Malay kitchen the bunga kantan is an everyday herb, spicing up hot and sour fish, kerabu salads, herbed rice and laksa. It is regarded as the soul of Peranakan cuisine, lending its nuanced citrusy floral notes to a rich and celebrated culinary tradition.

In Indonesia, it’s used as an aromatic and vegetable. Kecombrang finds its way into various salads like urap and pecel. In Bali, kecombrang adds punch to the basic sambal matah dip, the relish at every meal. In Jakarta it animates the street food, rujak. In Singapore it is called “rojak flower” for the same reason.

These days, there’s an experi­men­tal spirit in the kitchen and non-conventional ways of using the torch ginger have emerged. Chris Salans of Mozaic in Bali finds that it works beautifully in desserts such as ice cream and sorbet. Dewakan’s Darren Teoh is working to obtain its essential oil for use in tea offerings at his Glenmarie restaurant. “We regularly use it, fresh as well as pickled, like in a prawn umai with herbs and dried coconut.”

Perhaps its most exciting use can be found among the city’s innovative bars. At Kuala Lumpur’s cooler bars you don’t ask for a mojito but a bunga kantan mojito. Botak Liquor’s bunga kantan and pumpkin cocktail has been hailed as the year’s most exotic cocktail combo. The laksa cocktail is a popular take – 23aubergine and Lou Shang Bar have their versions. Mixologist Ashish Sharma at the new Bar Trigona at the Four Seasons KL makes sure there’s a torch ginger cocktail on his menu and Jack Rose’s award winning mixologist David Hans sums it up perfectly when he says the bunga kantan is “a signature to local flavour”.

All recipes by Julie Wong

torch ginger or bunga kantan

Genius Sengkuang Calit


This recipe hack lets you prepare a forgotten street snack at home in two shakes. It also gets an update with bunga kantan.

4-5 servings

1 medium sengkuang (yambean or jicama)
100g roasted peanuts, crushed
1 bunga kantan bud (torch ginger), halved and finely sliced

aroma paste
3 cubes red preserved beancurd
1 tbsp pure peanut butter
1 tbsp shaoxing rice wine (optional)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tbsp honey or grated palm sugar

chilli paste
50g dried chilli paste (cili boh)
5 shallots
salt and sugar to taste
1-2 tbsp palm oil

To make aroma paste

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix well, seasoning to taste. Aim for a spreading consistency – not too thick or runny. Adjust thickness by adding more or less peanut butter. This keeps well in the fridge sealed in a glass jar.

To make chilli paste

Blend all the ingredients into a paste and stir over medium low heat until aromatic and slightly dry. This keeps well in the fridge sealed in a glass jar.

To serve

Peel and slice sengkuang no thicker than 1cm-3/4cm is perfect. Using a dinner spoon, scoop a little chilli paste and a bit more aroma paste on a slice of sengkuang. Use the back of the spoon to spread it around evenly, using a circular motion. Sprinkle generously with crushed peanuts and top with bunga kantan. For a non-spicy version, omit the chilli paste.


It’s nice to serve the sengkuang chilled. Squeeze over some lime or calamansi lime juice if you like. Freshly roasted peanuts will make all the difference. You can also make pineapple calit.

torch ginger or bunga kantan

Bunga Kantan & Nangka Muda Masak Putih


Try cooking bunga kantan like a vegetable. For this recipe, choose flower buds that are more open. These are slightly more tart, less fibrous, less astringent and better for eating. The dish has a gentle sour note and floral scent from the bunga kantan.

4 servings

400g nangka muda (unripe jackfruit)
4 stalks bunga kantan (torch ginger bud)
2 tbsp coconut oil or palm oil
2 stalks lemongrass, crushed
1 small turmeric leaf, crushed
300ml thin coconut milk
200ml thick coconut milk
8-10 green cili padi (bird’s eye chilli)
salt and sugar to taste

spice paste
6 shallots
2 garlic cloves
2-3 slices ginger
2-3 slices galangal
1 tsp belacan granules

Cut jackfruit into wedges and boil for 5 minutes and strain. Remove stalks from bunga kantan. Peel away the tougher outside petals and cut into quarters.

Heat oil in a wok and fry the spice paste and lemongrass until aromatic without browning. Add pandan leaf, turmeric leaf, thin coconut milk, jackfruit, bunga kantan and cili padi. Bring to the boil then cook on medium low heat until jackfruit is tender but still firm, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Add thick coconut milk and cook for 5 minutes more on low heat.

Variation: Replace jackfruit with tempeh, white fish, chicken or prawn; adjust the cooking time for each ingredient as necessary.

torch ginger or bunga kantan

Pegaga salad


My go-to local quick salad lightened and refreshed with bunga kantan and crispy green apple. The pegaga can be subbed with ulam raja (cosmos) or even kale.

4 servings

50g pegaga (pennywort), sliced finely
1 green apple, cut into matchsticks
½ bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), sliced finely
6-8 shallots, sliced thinly
6-8 green cili padi (bird’s eye chilli), sliced thinly
4 heaped tbsp freshly grated coconut
2 tbsp lime or calamansi juice
2 tsp sugar or to taste
1 tsp salt or to taste

Just before serving, toss everything together in a salad bowl, seasoning to taste. Give it a few good scrunches with the hand to break down the pegaga and bunga kantan slightly – it’s like how kale tastes so much better with a little massage. Enjoy.

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