Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Asian: Lotus Root

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Having grown up eating lotus root, I never paused to appreciated the food from a biological and culinary standpoint. Sunk into the mud of a pond or river bottom, lotus root is actually the stem of the plant. Growing as long as four feet, the stems rises out of the water and ends in the elegant flowers that are so revered in Buddhist and Hindu cultures. Even in harsh temperatures, lotus flowers maintain a fairly precise temperature range, which is perhaps why the Chinese call lotus root a "cooling" food, consumed to restore balance to the body.

Lotus root powder, which the Chinese also eat for its medicinal effects, is simply lotus root that's been dried and finely ground. Boiling water is added to make a gelatinous, soup-like paste. As a child I was fed a lot of lotus root powder when I was ill, which was often because I was a sickly, scrawny kid. Though I can't vouch for its healing qualities, the texture of the reconstituted lotus root powder was always pleasing and soothing to the stomach.

The plant is an endlessly forgiving ingredient with which to experiment, culinarily speaking. Whether it's stir-fried, boiled, braised, steamed, or deep-fried, lotus root remains crisp yet tender, with a creamy and starchy texture that's similar to taro root. Lotus seeds can be boiled and added to dessert soups or ground to make lotus seed paste, a common ingredient in sweets like mooncakes and daifuku. Though not as widely available, even the petals and leaves of the lotus plant are edible.

Buying and Preparation Tips

Lotus root is in season in the fall, yet it is available at other times of the year in whole or packaged form. Look for lotus root that is heavy and firm, with no soft spots or bruising. Once the stem has been peeled, soak it in vinegar to preserve its pale-colored flesh. Packages of cut and sliced lotus root, which often come in a solution of water and salt, can be used in the same way as fresh lotus root. Lotus seeds are usually sold in dried form at Chinese stores and resemble chickpeas in color and shape.

A classic preparation for lotus root is stir-frying, which highlights the crunchy yet tender texture of the stem. When stir-frying lotus root, pair it with other vegetables that are also tender and crisp, such as sugar snap peas, snow peas, asparagus, and celery. I typically stir-fry lotus root with plenty of wine and oyster sauce, which adds much needed depth to the mild taste of the stem. Like so many other tubers and stems, lotus root is a welcome addition to soups and stews, absorbing whatever flavors are in the simmering liquid.

We've only begun to scratch the surface with lotus root enjoyment: How do you cook it?

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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