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Blue drink: How the butterfly pea flower changed the color of Philly’s food and beverages

Plus: How to make your own blue drink.

The Rendang Blue Rice served as a special event dish at Saté Kampar in South Philadelphia on Monday, August 12, 2019.  The blue rice was made with the butterfly pea flower from Southeast Asia.
The Rendang Blue Rice served as a special event dish at Saté Kampar in South Philadelphia on Monday, August 12, 2019. The blue rice was made with the butterfly pea flower from Southeast Asia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

When Instagrammers spot a photo of the frosty, lavender-colored frozen mojito at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop-Up Garden on South Street, comments range from “waaaantttt” to “wow what is this?” to “omg yasssssssssss.”

Though tasty and refreshing, the excitement isn’t over the minty cocktail itself, but its vivid purple hue. The photogenic drink gets its color from the butterfly pea flower, the color-changing blossom that’s become one of the hottest food and drink trends in Philly this summer.

“I first encountered it at a bar in Thailand,” says Melissa Torre, general manager of the PHS garden, whose food and beverage program is executed in partnership with the restaurant group that owns Khyber Pass Pub, Cantina Dos Segundos, Royal Tavern, Cantina Los Caballitos, and Triangle Tavern. “I brought it here to the garden [in 2017], and in the last month, it’s been popping up everywhere.”

Torre says many people just ask the bar for the “purple drink,” but others are more curious about it. Despite the occasional confusion — “one guy said he Googled it and butterflies don’t pee” — customers are getting more familiar with the natural coloring agent.

Just weeks ago, South Philly’s Kalaya earned a three-bell review from restaurant critic Craig LaBan for its Southern Thai food. One of its most eye-catching dishes employs the butterfly pea flower: cerulean-blue sakoo sai hed, or tapioca dumplings filled with mushrooms.

For chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, though, the plant is no fleeting trend. “Where I come from, it’s part of our food, our culture,” she says. “You can find it everywhere [in Thailand], but it probably became a trend this summer in Philadelphia.”

When friends from Thailand visit Suntaranon, she has them bring her suitcases full of the dried blue petals. She essentially makes a tea with the flowers to release their natural indigo color and then uses the water to make tapioca dumplings that get stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, sweet radishes, garlic, shallots, cilantro root, peanuts, and caramelized palm sugar. A tip for her guests: Don’t cut the dumplings — they’re meant to be eaten whole with a bit of the accompanying cucumber, cilantro, and spicy pepper.

Suntaranon says that the flower, which happens to grow “like a weed” at her mother’s house in Thailand, is often used for medicinal purposes, including regulating body temperature, lowering blood sugar, and increasing appetites.

John Rapini, greenhouse manager of the PHS-run Meadowbrook Farm, echoes Suntaranon. “Though butterfly pea flower is primarily used to color beverages today, it’s been used medicinally for centuries,” he says. “It’s used for memory enhancement, as an antidepressant, and as an anti-inflammatory.”

This member of the pea family is native to Southeast Asia and thrives in hot climates. The sun-loving vine can grow upwards of 15 feet, with small, dark-blue to medium-purple flowers that attract bees and butterflies.

When brewed on their own, like tea, the petals seep out a bright blue shade. But combine butterfly pea flowers with acidic substances, like a citrusy mojito, and its shade turns more purple, Rapini explains.

Ange Branca has been turning food and drinks blue and purple at her Malaysian restaurant, Sate Kampar, for a few years. In the summer, guests love the Chameleon Cooler drink — a combination of butterfly pea flower tea, lemongrass syrup, and lime. It’s like a science experiment: Upon squeezing a lime wedge into the glass, the blue drink becomes purple.

Her beef heart rendang dish for the upcoming Feastival event (at Cherry Street Pier on Sept. 26) features rice dyed blue by extracting the flower’s color in hot water — “just like steeping tea.” To show that it’s not just food coloring, she leaves some whole petals in the rice.

Her family ships her dried flowers — called bunga telang in Malay — to use in drinks and rice, as well as a sweet coconut rice dessert, pulut tai tai. “The minute you open the vacuum-sealed bag, it smells like blueberries,” she says. “It has a very mild flavor, like pea leaves.”

At the Four Seasons Hotel at Comcast Center, Vernick Coffee Bar combines blue tea with another in-vogue ingredient: matcha (a “superfood” made from ground green tea leaves and known for its antioxidant properties). Tea supplier Rishi provides the coffee bar a powdered form of the butterfly pea flower, which baristas turn into a vanilla-sweetened concentrate. It’s served iced latte-style, with milk and matcha layered on top to create a lava lamp effect. Guests regularly come up to the bar and say, “We want the Instagram drink,” says general manager Susan Montenegro.

Red Owl Tavern’s head bartender Kyle Darrow likes to use the vibrant flower to wow guests. In the last two years, he’s used it in a vodka drink with lime and sugar, a gin sour, and for a tipple at an Alice in Wonderland-themed event. The bar menu changes quarterly, but Darrow says he can whip up a butterfly pea flower drink upon request.

For home cooks and bartenders, testing this product at home can be as simple as placing an order online. When PHS’s Torre first started using butterfly pea flower, she ground the dried flowers herself to make a powder. “Now, you can go on Amazon and buy it,” she says. For drinks, Torre likes to incorporate it into simple syrup; adding the powder during the cooking process creates an even more vibrant color.

Alexis Siemons, a Philadelphia-based tea and wellness brand strategist and author of the blog Teaspoons & Petals, recommends making a concentrate by boiling 1 teaspoon of dried flowers in 2 ounces of water for five minutes, then shaking with two or three ice cubes. “To activate the color change from indigo blue to violet,” she suggests mixing the concentrate with 4 to 6 ounces of either jasmine green tea, cucumber juice, or matcha tea — all chilled and spiked with lime and honey.

Branca, who also tends to boil the flowers in hot water to extract their color, thinks the first time Philadelphians saw blue rice was in LaBan’s 2016 dining guide, which featured Sate Kampar. She says she didn’t think much of it at the time because it’s just another way that she brings a small part of her homeland to Philadelphia.

Kalaya’s Suntaranon agrees. “Ange and I have the same goal: cooking food from our hometowns and keeping it authentic.” When guests gush over the beautiful blue food at her restaurant, she makes sure to tell them why it’s blue and about the flower’s magical properties. Then, break out the cameras: The blue dumplings are ready for their close-up.