Grocery Ninja: Lotus Roots, Enlightenment, and Chomping on Culinary Crack

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.

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Last week, the Russian housemate came back from the grocery with a pack of what looked like fossils. On close scrutiny, they turned out to be dried lotus roots—something I should have been excited about, as I’ve been craving lotus roots and had not realized they were available. But, remembering the foul mushiness that is canned water chestnuts, I dismissed the dried tubers with a haughty, "No thanks, they’ll probably taste bleargh!"

Back in Asia, I’ve always bought lotus roots freshly harvested. Coated in a layer of mud that keeps them moist, they look rather like severed human limbs that have been dredged out from the bottom of a lake. Bring them home, scrape off the mud, and give them a good scrub, and they look less eerily like body parts and more appetizingly like giant sausage links.

An underwater rhizome, the lotus plant is popular throughout Asia and is especially venerated in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. The lotus flower represents purity and enlightenment—having grown from mud and emerged unstained from the metaphorical quagmire of human desires. It’s also a highly economical plant, as every part of it—from the stamens to the petals and leaves—presents itself deliciously on the dining table. The stamens, for instance, are infused in water and served as a sweet-smelling tea in India and Vietnam, while Thais enjoy the petals dipped in a spicy, smoky fish sauce called Nam Prik.

What To Cook with Lotus Root

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This week’s cold weather put soup on my mind, and I found myself having to retract my haughty dismissal, as, once resuscitated in an overnight soak, the dried lotus roots were perfectly serviceable simmered in a hearty peanut and pork bone broth. Taste-wise, they’re earthy and nutty, with a firm bite that gives way to a pleasant floury-ness—much like a potato but less dense. I’ve yet to try these dried lotus roots in my favorite tempura recipe, in a nice, summery salad, or in the various stir-fries they rock in. But I reckon they would hold up well braised in a soy-caramel sauce for Korean bahn chan, stuffed with glutinous rice and steamed, or used to sandwich shrimp paste before being cummerbunded in Japanese nori and fried.

Other Tasty Parts of the Lotus Plant

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Lest you regard this humble tuber with suspicion (is this batty girl asking us to eat pond flowers?), you’ve probably encountered the lotus plant before. A common yum cha offering, dried lotus leaves are used to wrap sticky rice and impart a wonderful herbal fragrance to the fluffy grains. Lotus seed paste, which tastes very much like chestnut spread, is in constant competition with adzuki bean paste for the starring role in Asian treats—as the oozy, sweet filling in flaky pastries, cottony buns, mochi, etc. The candied seeds, sometimes called nuts, are abound during Vietnamese Tet, and if you’re really, really lucky, you may have gotten your hands on the lightly salted, roasted lotus seeds. I personally consider them to be culinary crack (incredibly fragrant, remarkably light, mind bogglingly scrumptious) and cannot believe no enterprising businessman has made a killing by importing them yet.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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