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Japan meets Thailand

May 3, 2012

Living with a Thai family has enriched my knowledge about tropical plants for food, construction and medicine. With such a basic understanding it is most interesting to meet with Chinese and Japanese visitors to compare similarities and differences. Since Dokmai Garden‘s 500 plant signs also contain names and texts in Japanese, and since we can offer pre-booked Chinese guides, a fruitful communication is possible.

Our current garden school student Yoko from Tokyo is perhaps more thrilled about leaf patterns than a regular Thai, but she shares Ketsanee‘s interest in edible plants. Yesterday Yoko tried a betel quid, i.e. the mix of a fresh betel leaf (Piper betle, Piperaceae), the fruit of Areca palm (Areca catechu, Arecaceae, dried and then soaked in hot water before consumption) and some calcium to elevate the pH. All three ingredients must be chewed simultaneously and will induce saliva production. This mild stimulant has been used for millenia and used to be so important for Thai culture that the Thai royal regalia includes a golden spittoon and a betel box. Yoko remarked it was like a cigarette. Ketsanee has never tried betel, while her grandmother from Chiang Saen chews it regularly which is clearly seen from her black teeth.

Yoko also tried ‘Asiatic pennywort’ or ‘boa bok’ (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae). This common plant is just emerging from its dormancy during the dry season and is commonly consumed in Thailand, either eaten raw or pounded into an extract or as a tea. Sometimes the pounded leaves are mixed with syrup and served cold as a refreshing drink. It is supposed to enhance the memory and concentration, and like so many other edible greens it provides vitamins, carotenoids and minerals for sure. Yoko remarked it tastes like Japanese ‘mitsuba’ (Cryptotaenia japonica, Apiaceae), which is a clever comparison because they do belong to the same plant families.

It is fun to learn more about edible plants. A special morning tea from Sarapee outside Chiang Mai seems to appeal to the Japanese taste. It contains leaves from five different plants (I am still working on what the ingredients are, Hibiscus sabdariffa and Thunbergia laurifolia for sure). It smells like an ancient forest, earthy, and daily consumption is believed to make you live a long and healthy life.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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