Monday, February 22, 2010

Spilanthes oleracea, Szechuan Buttons

Acmella oleracea syn Spilanthes oleracea syn Spilanthes acmella
This edible perennial plant from the Brazilian State of Para (agriao do Para) is given lots of common names including Toothache plant, Alphabet plant, Hide-n-seek, or just Spilanthes, while the flowers are referred to as Szechuan buttons, electric buttons, or buzz buttons. In France it is known as Cresson du Bresil and in Japan as Hoko So where it is used to put the 'electric' back into eel sushi.
I grew it from seed this summer after reading about it in The Washington Post in an article headed 'Taste Test: Buttons Up' 'Like a taste that tingles, then this buds for you'. The Washington Post has a funny video related to this on their website in which staff writers are given the flower buds to try and have their reactions recorded. So what does it taste like? I'll use the description from the Post: "It feels like licking a nine-volt battery" The tingling and slightly anesthetic effect on eating the leaves or flowers is due to the presence of a compound known as spinanthol. According to one of my food plant books, experiments are underway to include extracts of this in soft drinks to create a tingling effect similar to sorbet. In Brazilian cooking it has a particular affinity in cooked meals in association with garlic and chilli. It stimulates the flow of saliva and perhaps allays some of the heat from the chilli by numbing the throat. I will have to experiment further. Up until now, I have tried the leaves in salads to give a bit of extra zing. It is well known as a salad plant in the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Reunion etc).
As for cultivation, it needs lots of water and wilts quickly when dry. It is frost tender.There is also a purple leafed form and a variety with a maroon tipped flower.

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