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Cha-om is a shrub-like plant comprised of long branching stems covered with many small and slender bi-pinnate leaves. The dark green leaves are narrow, oblong to oval, and have a feathery appearance, similar to a fern. Cha-om is generally harvested for its young, tender, and crisp leaves. The leaves are attached to woody stalks, and the fibrous dark green branches are covered in sharp, spiny thorns that become larger with maturity. The plant also produces small yellow flowers seasonally. Cha-om has an odiferous scent when raw, often likened to a musty, sulfuric, and metallic, unpleasant smell. The smell is reduced when the leaves are cooked, and the leaves soften into a crisp and succulent consistency with a vegetal, subtly bitter, herbaceous, and nutty flavor.
Cha-om is available year-round in tropical climates. In cooler regions, the young leaves are typically harvested in the spring through summer.
Cha-om, botanically classified as Senegalia pennata, is an herbaceous tropical plant belonging to the Fabaceae family. The fast-growing shrub is native to Southeast Asia and can reach up to five meters in height, found along roadsides, in forests, and cultivated in home gardens. Cha-om is a productive plant that develops new leaf growth year-round, providing a steady source of tender greens for foragers. The plant is harvested for its young and tender leaves, and the dark green leaves are cooked and used as a favored vegetal flavoring. Cha-om is also botanically known under the scientific name Acacia pennata and has several common names, including Climbing Wattle, Khang, Stinky Leaf, Petai Duri, and Rau Thoi. The slender leaves have a pungent odor, especially when raw, and are most commonly cooked to reduce their smell and develop a pleasant, subtly crisp texture.
Cha-om is a good source of vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning, calcium and phosphorus to protect bones and teeth, vitamin C to strengthen the immune system, and iron to develop the protein hemoglobin to transport oxygen through the bloodstream. The herb also provides fiber to regulate the digestive tract and B vitamins to promote optimal cell functioning. In natural, eastern medicines, Cha-om is boiled and consumed to soothe digestive issues and stomach pain.
Cha-om can be consumed raw, but the offensive odor of the fresh leaves is generally off-putting. The leaves are most commonly cooked to reduce the smell and are popularly stir-fried, boiled, fried, or sauteed. Cha-om is utilized similarly to herbs as a flavoring agent and can be incorporated into salads, curries and soups, stir-fries, noodle-based dishes, or mixed into rice. In Thailand, the leaves are traditionally cooked in egg-based dishes, similar to omelets, frittatas, or egg casseroles. Cha-om pairs well with fruits such as papaya and mango, aromatics including chile peppers, ginger, garlic, and scallions, meats such as beef, pork, and poultry, seafood including shrimp and fish, carrots, radish, and eggplant. Fresh Cha-om will keep up to one week when stored unwashed in the refrigerator. The leaves can also be frozen for extended use.
Cha-om is widely found throughout local markets in Thailand, and the tender greens are sold wrapped in banana leaves to protect against the sharp thorns found along the stems. The leaves are the only portion of the plant utilized in culinary applications and are viewed as an herbal flavoring rather than a hearty vegetable. Cha-om is most famously cooked into khai jiao, a fluffy and crisp egg omelet. The top, tender leaves are plucked from the stem, seasoned, and added to the eggs before cooking. Once cooked, khai jiao is cut into squares for serving. The omelet is served over rice and is frequently dipped in a spicy Thai chili sauce known as nahm prik. The omelet squares can also be served in a bowl of Thai sour curry. Khai jiao is one of Thailand’s comfort foods, and the savory dish is served as a snack or meal at any time of the day through street vendors, cafes, and home chefs. The egg and Cha-om-infused dish is also a standard component of a sam rap, a traditional Thai meal where families prepare many dishes to share. Sam rap meals are unique to each family, and the meal is comprised of dishes that create a balanced flavor profile with salty, spicy, sweet, sour, and savory dishes. Khai jiao provides neutral, savory flavors to complement dishes with a spicy or sour nature. The omelet is also often served with coconut-based curries to balance the richness in the curry.
Cha-om is native to Southeast Asia and has been growing wild since ancient times. The plant thrives in humid, tropical climates and is prevalent in forests, disturbed areas, and home gardens. Cha-om is fast-growing, allowing the tender leaves to be harvested every couple of days, and while some Cha-om is commercially cultivated, most of the leaves are sourced from its native habitat and home gardens. Today Cha-om has been spread worldwide through migrating peoples and has been planted on a small scale through specialty farms in the United States. The plant has also been naturalized in Australia, aggressively spreading and being labeled as an invasive species. Cha-om is commonly found through local markets in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern China, Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. It is also sometimes found through specialty distributors in Europe and the United States and in frozen form at select Asian markets.
Recipes that include Cha-om. One is easiest, three is harder.