Eating your way to health: lotus
The lotus (Nelumbo nufera, in pinyin liánhuā 莲花) symbolizes purity, spiritual enlightenment and beauty in many Asian cultures. This freshwater plant, which originally came from India is also part of the Chinese diet. In fact, the whole plant – from the flowers to the roots – is edible.
The plants are harvested from late summer through fall and while most of the harvest end up in Chinese kitchens as raw ingredients, some also end up on pharmacy shelves as part of traditional Chinese medicine preparations.
The fresh jadewhite seeds (liánzĭ 莲子) of the lotus can be eaten raw, as long as the green, bitter sprout is removed first. This sprout, or “heart” (liánzĭ xīn 莲子心) is used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and is good for the heart and blood pressure.
Lotus seeds themselves taste sort of sweetly and they are usually ground into a paste, which, when sweetened with sugar, are used as pastry and dessert fillings. Lotus seeds can also be dried, in which case, they are first soaked in water before they are boiled to make lotus porridge or made into paste.
The lotus stamen is also kind of sweet and they are dried and used to make herbal tea (liánhuā chá 莲花茶).
Chinese cooks also use the petals of the lotus flowers – for example, by first dipping the flowers in a mixture of egg and flour before deep-frying them and sprinkling them with sugar. The crisp and sweet lotus flowers are a mouthwatering delicacy. The flowers are also used to decorate dishes – so they're a feast for the eyes as well.
The big green leaves of the lotus plant is perfect for cooking. Rice could be wrapped in the leaves and steamed in bamboo steamers to make the mildly green and incredibly fragrant lotus rice.
The other lotus leaf classic is “beggar's chicken.” There are many versions of the recipe and how it it was invented (there are even two different ways of writing it -- 叫化鸡jiào huà jī or 叫花鸡jiào huā jī – but the idea is that the dish can be prepared on the road without need for special equipment or even a kitchen! To make the dish, you'll need a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, vegetables and pork. Brush the top of the chicken with a mixture of soy sauce and rice vinegar before wrapping it in lotus leaves. Cover with wet clay and roast the chicken over hot coals.
Those who haven't been on the road much might be hard to imagine how such a delicious meal could come from the lotus-wrapped parcel... and the rest of us could just as easily order this “beggar's chicken” from restaurant menus. The recipe has been tweaked, a little though, so that what takes a few hours to cook over hot coals takes much faster and the chicken is chopped before being wrapped in lotus leaves. If you're cooking at home, you can just put the lotus-wrapped chicken in aluminum foil and cook it in the oven.
If lotus flowers and leaves seem too exotic, then try the more common lotus root (lián oŭ 莲藕), which technically, is not a root but a tuber.
You can buy preserved lotus roots even in ordinary grocery stores, but the canned stuff is no match for the taste of fresh lotus root. The lotus root resembles a big potato. When you peel it, you'll find a light and crispy core. When you slice the lotus root, it looks like lacework, because there are holes running the length of the root.
Lotus root tastes delicious when it is simply washed, peeled, sliced and stir-fried with nothing more than salt to spice it up. You can also get lotus root as a cold appetizer in Chinese restaurants. The holes are usually filled with different pastes, such as sweet sticky rice.
If you are looking in the market for fresh lotus roots, then check that it hasn't darkened and that it's still firm. In Chinese markets, the roots are kept in a cool, dry place because moisture darkens the root and makes the root spoil easily. Fresh lotus roots have a clear pinkish tinge inside.
When you're preparing lotus roots for cooking, soak the slices in cold water so they don't turn dark. Remember to dry them before cooking, though.
According to the Chinese, the lotus root helps purify the lungs and aids digestion.