Monday, September 28, 2009
Foods to make you stink: Petai Beans
Unless you've travelled to Southeast Asia, it's likely that you've never eaten petai. And many people would say that you're not missing out - why would anyone want to eat something often referred to as "stinky bean"?
The petai bean (Parkia speciosa) is also known as the twisted cluster bean. It is most commonly eaten in Indonesia and Malaysia (the name petai is Malay). It is also relatively common in Thai and Lao cuisine, and you can often find the beans imported to the West being labelled with the Thai name, sataw or sator. It is also known to the Burmese and the Burmic peoples of North Eastern India.
It is classified as a member of the family Fabaceae, and thus is related to all the other bean varieties commonly used around the world. Indeed, when podded it resembles a young lima bean, with an impressively bright shade of green and almond-like shape. Its pods, which hang from trees up to 30m high, resemble longer, twisted versions of broad bean pods.
So how stinky are they? Well, the beans themselves are not particularly stinky at all. But once you eat them, you will begin to notice things. Like your urine and faeces will bear the unmistakable petai smell. That's clearly not a big deal, since no one expects their excretions to smell nice anyway. But the effect on your breath will be more worrying. Your breath won't smell too horrible - its not as bad as, say, raw garlic - but its enough to bug you. And when you burp - and believe me, if you eat petai you will burp - you get to taste the petai's odor all over again.
While raw garlic is worse, garlic-smell on the breath only lasts around a day at the most, typically. It is not uncommon for the smell of petai to be burped up and excreted for up to 3 days. So before eating petai, you really need to evaluate your chances of getting some kissing action for a few days. Because unless that person has also been eating petai, they're not going to think too highly of your oral hygiene unless you are constantly cramming in the Mentos. Drinking a lot of water may help to flush the smell from your system, but I ain't promising anything.
Oh, and being a bean, it naturally contains the kind of complex carbohydrates that cause increased flatulence as the digestive system works to break it down. And of course, that flatulence will carry the distinctive petai smell.
So, what about the taste? Is it so delicious that it is worth being a bit whiffy for a day or so?
Well, to be honest, the taste is a tad funky. Not bad, but certainly not exciting. The bean has a mild bitterness to it that is vaguely reminiscent of brussels sprouts. While many Westerners are averse to bitter foods (despite liking beer and coffee), Southeast Asians are quite partial to them. Some claim it has significant health benefits (as is often the case with bitter-tasting foods), but I'm not convinced of the veracity of some of the claims I've read. At the very least, like other beans it is a useful source of protein.
Young petai can be eaten raw, but are not so pleasant. They take on a new life when combined with other strong flavours however. In Malay cuisine petai often appear in a selection of ulam (raw vegetables and herbs) and are eaten with a chili sambal on the side. Or they will be cooked into the sambal itself - Indonesia's fiery and garlic-laced sambal petai is one of the best uses of the bean, although its not for the faint-hearted. Prawns are often added to the sambal as well, which is a classic combination. The Indonesian fermented soybean cake tempeh, which also has a slightly bitter acquired taste, is also a good partner for petai; they are usually cooked with sweet soya sauce (kecap manis) which balances the flavours nicely. The beans can be cooked into an omelette as well, although this is just asking for trouble flatulence-wise.
Nasi goreng petai is my favourite way of using the bean. It follows the usual Malay/Indonesian way of making fried rice (lots of shallots and garlic a must), but with extra chili sambal. Pungent shrimp paste is often used, with scrambled egg stirred into it. The end result is a reddish fried rice studded with the green petai beans. It's a dish which is likely to make you fart, burp, sweat and stink like nothing else, but it's great stuff.
It should be said that petai is not popular with everyone in the countries that use it - some don't find it to be pleasant-tasting, and many just don't want to have to deal with the after-effects. Personally, I don't eat it very often for the latter reason.
It's not always easy to find petai in the West, but groceries that cater to Indonesians and Thais are likely to carry them, either tinned, or in frozen form - I'd take frozen, personally.
In the same countries as petai you may also find its relative, the jengkol bean, which I may post about it someday. It is even stinkier.
See also: Foods that make you stink: Fenugreek