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Petai beans are harvested from the forest at the edge of the kampung or typical Malay village, from tall trees rising up to 90 feet high, with long green pods dangling from stalks. Petai beans – similar in size and shape to broad beans – are peeled from these pods before eating. In the villages the petai pods are sometimes toasted over a fire before the beans are served at the table. To eat petai in the truly kampung way, the roasted pod is passed around as the family sits in a circle on a mat during a meal, and each diner peels off as many beans as required before passing the pod to his or her neighbour.

Petai bean pods

Petai bean pods
Photo by Nurliza Khalid

Petai is widely used in the native cuisines of Southeast Asia and is much savoured as ulam, part of a salad made of raw vegetables, often dipped in a pungent sauce of belacan (shrimp paste) flavoured with a dash of lime juice and a healthy dose of pounded chilli.

Nowadays, if you mention ‘petai’ to a Malaysian, you will probably hear of a favourite sambal petai recipe. Sambal is a dry spicy dish where the ingredients are all mixed together in a hot wok, often with a rich dollop of pounded chilli. The green petai beans stand out among the bright glow of the chilli in the thick mix of garlic and pounded shallots. When prawns are added to the paste, and the mixture is browned in the shallow, simmering oil, everything takes on the strong and distinct taste of the petai. This forms a perfect accompaniment to boiled rice: the soft texture of the cooked grains contrasting with the thick spicy sauce and the al dente petai.

Petai beans with cucumber and sambal

Petai beans with cucumber and sambal
Photo by Taufiq Wan

Just as the onion-seller evokes the French countryside, travelling along rural roads in Malaysia one can sometimes see the petai man on his haunches by the roadside, with his bicycle parked nearby with its beard of petai pods dangling from the handlebars. Petai stalls line the roads at the height of the petai season, with curtains of raw petai to entice the petai gourmet.

While savoured for their taste, it is not for nothing that petai beans are known as ‘stink beans’. A Malay bride or groom will not eat petai before their wedding night, even if their guests are happy to indulge in petai together with the rich oily rice dishes that are typically served during a wedding feast. Petai has unpleasant side effects: the urine of a person who eats petai will reek of a strong, ammonia-like smell, and the eater’s breath will carry the unmistakable whiff - or more of a pong - of petai.

Petai is not a standard part of the repertoire of leaves and roots carried in the pouch by a Malay bomoh (medicine man), but he will commend it highly for blood-cleansing or for ailments of the kidneys. Nowadays, petai beans are also regarded as an antidote for kencing manis ('sweet urine') or diabetes, and similar claims are made for the root of the petai that is now widely marketed in Malaysia as a medicinal tea. According to Haji Ali, a geologist who also loves to cook and grows his own herbs, in Malaysia children are discouraged from eating petai for obvious antisocial reasons, but he believes if the petai can prevent diabetes, children should be allowed to eat petai from a young age.

Text by Taufiq Wan
Interview with Haji Ali Jalal

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