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This plant, known as Javanese turmeric or kunyit in Indonesia and temu lawak in Malaysia, has a wide range of culinary uses, including for its deep yellow colour. Turmeric and other members of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) are essential ingredients in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. 

Turmeric root

Turmeric root
Photo by Izham Khalid

Temu lawak is a lesser-known member of the ginger family, but is now increasing in popularity because of its higher content of curcumin which helps digestion and functions as a remedy for rheumatism, swellings, runny nose and coughs.

Another member of the family similar in appearance to Javanese turmeric is the torch ginger flower, known as bunga kantan in Malaysia. Whether finely chopped to release its taste in air asam, a tamarind dip served with grilled meats and fish, or sliced in halves to be infused into soups and stews, bunga kantan imparts a unique floral note to a wide variety of dishes from Nyonya (localised Chinese), Malay and other cuisines of Southeast Asia.

Torch ginger flower

Torch ginger flower or bunga kantan
Photo by Izham Khalid

Malaysian celebrity Chef Wan describes bunga kantan as having ‘a unique aroma’ and emphasises that its distinct taste is found ‘only in that plant and nowhere else’. He puts it to good use in curries, soups, and salads, as well as recommending its floral bouquet as a soothing and relaxing bath scent. It is this light and pleasant aroma that is used to contrast with or to tame stronger or even overpowering smells such as fish, rounding off the taste and perfectly complementing the flavours with which it mingles.

One of Chef Wan’s signature dishes using both turmeric and bunga kantan is nasi ulam or herb rice. Read Chef Wan's recipe for Herb Rice

Outside the kitchen, the graceful aesthetic beauty of the lilies, with their fiery pink vibrance, are also popular in decorative flower arrangements.

The distinctive aromas and tastes of members of the ginger family including temu lawak and bunga kantan are defining and irreplaceable features of Southeast Asian cookery, sure to be embraced and appreciated by those who experience their flavours for the first time.

Text by Taufiq Wan

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