On one of our first trips to the Thai produce market, the boyfriend stopped in front of a fern-like plant, turned to me, and said, “Ooh, we should get that!” Not knowing what it was, I picked it up without a moment’s hesitation. Unfortunately, as I soon found out, it was cha om, a Thai vegetable that is covered with numerous tiny, but incredibly sharp thorns!
After recovering from the stinging pain of thorns in my hands, I lifted the vegetable up to get a closer look at it and was greeted with a pungent, quite unpleasant odor. “What kind of plant is this?” I asked the boyfriend, who was oblivious to my discouraging first experience with this plant. He replied that it was one of his favorite vegetables and that it’s great when stir fried with eggs.
Since my initial encounter with cha om, I’ve fortunately had many more pleasant experiences. This unusual plant is one of the tropical varieties of acacia, and is also known as climbing wattle in English. It grows as a small shrub, whose stems are harvested and sold in small bunches at the market. The leaves of cha om are used in Thai cooking. To remove the leaves from the thorny stems, simply hold each stem by its top and then pull downward on each side, releasing the delicate leaves as you go. The leaves can be collected and stored like this for up to a few days in the refrigerator, but are best when used fresh.
Despite its prickly thorns and quite distinctive odor, the leaves of the cha om plant are quite mild. Once cooked, the odor dissipates and you have a delicious, somewhat earthy tasting vegetable. Cha om is commonly mixed with eggs to make omelets, but can also be stir fried on its own or eaten in various soups. So don’t let your initial impressions of this plant stop you — once you are accustomed to working with it, it can be a fantastic addition to several Thai dishes!
For more information about Tropical Acacia Leaves, see this article about Cha Om (coming soon).