Photography by Steven Brown

A Pretty Mouthful

Eating Lotus

As I descend into the sunken garden on a terra-cotta pathway leading to the lotus pool, I’m transported to a world where I’d be completely unsurprised if a knee-high chap with pointy ears, a cherry nose and a helium-balloon voice popped out from under an enormous leaf and offered me a lotus petal filled with sweetest ambrosia. Santa Barbara’s Lotusland is just that otherworldly.

But I’m not here to eat, although feasting my eyes on the lotusscape, I see munching prospects all around: Giant lotus leaves in which I could wrap sticky rice and chicken or fish before steaming it, to impart a subtle, earthy sweetness. Tiny new leaves I could cook up like greens. Seedpods that look so much like showerheads that in the Thai language they use the same expression, fak bua, for both—pods filled with seeds I could eat fresh or cook or purée to make an exquisite paste. Buried deep within the muck below are starchy tubers, which I could cut up and bake or stir-fry or make into a thick soup or hearty beverage.

Then there are the lotus blossoms themselves, whose petals I could pluck, fill with sweet bean or lotus paste, batter and fry. And their stems, which I could slice and toss into a salad. And their stamens, from which I could brew tea. Oh, the possibilities!

Although the lotus blooms in the summer, the tasty rhizomes are harvest in the fall.

It’s easy to associate the lotus with the dubious reputation it received in Homer’s Odyssey and Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” but the stories of those munchers as mere hordes of drugged-out slackers are just that—stories. The lotus is an amazing, multipurpose plant that demands appreciation as much for its culinary potential as for its stunning beauty.

The symbol for many, Buddhists and Hindus in particular, of purity, eternal life and the ability to rise to great heights from lowly circumstances, the lotus is a member of the rhizome clan and the classier cousin of such robust specimens as Bermuda grass and kudzu. Lotus seeds estimated to be as old as 1,300 years have been discovered in China, germinated and grown into new plants. How’s that for resilience?

For centuries lotus grew primarily in Egypt and throughout Asia and was used for both food and non-food purposes. Then Santa Barbara horticultural superstar Ralph Stevens introduced it to the area in the late 1800s, planting it at showplaces including Lotusland, Franceschi Park, the Santa Barbara Biltmore and Casa del Herrero, and setting the stage for generations of Southern Californians to be enchanted by its beauty.

But it’s high time we considered other ways to enjoy this magnificent perennial, for it’s packed with protein, vitamin C and minerals. Whether or not you buy into the stories of its curative and restorative powers, it is nonetheless a versatile plant, and just about every part is edible.

Most food from the lotus comes from the rhizome (you may also see it called the root), a long, cylindrical tuber with a crisp, crunchy texture reminiscent of jicama and water chestnut. Unlike these two, though, lotus must be cooked first. While it retains that texture for a while, if you give it an extra long cooking it will eventually break down and become starchy and glutinous, which makes it a good choice for soup to soothe an angry tum. It can be used in stir-fries, soups, stews and salads, and even for snacking. The root has hollow chambers running through it, so when you cut it into slices you get pretty, lacy rounds that make every dish look extra special.

The thin exterior is bitter, so carve it away with a vegetable peeler. Once the flesh has been exposed to air it will begin to oxidize and turn dark, just like potatoes, apples and artichokes do. (It won’t hurt you to eat oxidized food—it’s just not very pretty.) Have a bowl of cold water mixed with a splash of white vinegar sitting next to the cutting board—that’s called acidulated water in chef talk—and toss the slices into the bowl as you work.

Lotus has a delicate flavor that plays well with most any seasonings you want to use. You’re not limited to Asian ingredients, so do some experimenting and see what you like.

After flowering the lotus seedpod resembles a shower head.

As for the seeds, when they’re fresh from the pod they’re tender and taste like green peas. Once you’ve simmered the dried ones for about 30 minutes, they’ll have myriad uses, both savory and sweet.

Drain and blot the rehydrated seeds, and toss them into a pan over medium-high heat with a bit of oil (the type depends on the influence you want). Roll them around until they begin taking on some color. They’ll start to sing or make a whistling sound, a veritable lotus chorus. It’s one of those rare instances when you don’t sing for your supper, but your supper sings to you! Blot the roasted seeds on a paper towel and sprinkle with seasoning—Cajun, Italian, Asian, Mexican or a blend of your own concoction. These are good for snacking or for garnishing a salad or stir-fry.

The seeds also work well in sweets and can be candied whole or puréed for filling pastries such as Chinese mooncakes.

The flower is perched atop a fibrous hollow stem that looks like a chambered drinking straw. When the stem is cut into slices, the fibers aren’t noticeable, but take a bite (you’ll find jars of brined lotus stems or “rootlets” in Asian markets), and as you pull it away from your mouth you’ll see tiny filaments extending between the stem and your teeth. These fine fibers are used to create a variety of products, from weaving the beautiful saffron wraps that clothe Buddha statues all over Southeast Asia to making wicks for oil-burning lamps.

Summer is lotus blossom time. But once the flowers have finished putting on their show, they die back, and the plant concentrates its starch in the rhizomes. So autumn is the time
to find them either fresh in the store or buried in your own water garden.

And you’re thinking about trying your hand at growing them, right? Aside from the lotus being one of the most glorious flowers you’ve ever seen, another good reason to grow them yourself is that it’s difficult to find the leaves and flowers in Asian markets, even when they’re in season. If you have your own supply growing at home, you have the freedom to be creative.

Lotus fits in perfectly with our California fusion sensibility and our penchant for subbing out one ingredient for another we like better—or that we have growing in our yard or peeking out of the latest CSA box.

And maybe there’s something to those stories about its healthful properties. The woman who sells prepared Korean foods at my local farmers market tells me about the benefits of the various foods I pile into my basket each week.

“Lotus is a cooling food,” she stresses every time. I’m not sure whether she repeats this because she sells to so many people that we’re all a blur, or because she takes one look at me and is convinced that I need cooling, and that I need frequent reminding of it.

No matter. Those crunchy marinated lotus slices are flavorful and refreshing, and that’s cool enough for me.

Find the recipe for delicious lotus chips to snack on, here.