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Lotus: A Plant with many Purposes

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 11, 12, and 31


China has always eaten aquatic plants. One particular one, the lotus, was and is adored for its flowers, loved for its seeds, and admired for its rhizome which we incorrectly call the root. The lotus provides pleasure and purpose with all of these parts, and does the same from its leaves. Cultivated and consumed since Neolithic times, the lotus was popular in Han times and has been identified in its tombs and in earlier tombs, as well. An early text that mentions the lotus is the Shih Ching or the Food Canons, which date from early Chou times (circa 1,000 - 500 BCE). It lists more than forty plant foods--lotus among them--and advises about lotus use in balancing dishes.

Like many other vegetables, lotus has been used for thousands of years and has played many important roles in China’s culinary history. It was and is used as a plain vegetable flavoring gruel and porridge, eaten fresh and raw, boiled, baked, dried, salted, pickled, or preserved, and used as a flour. It is an excellent supplement to cereal foods that make up the bulk of the Chinese diet. It is not only delicious on its own, it is also a wonderful accompaniment to other foods.

Found in ponds and marshes, the lotus has many names and is actually several species. The sacred lotus or Nelumbium muciferum is one of them. Another is Nelumbium speciousum, and yet another is Nelumbo nucifera. All are members of the water lily family. No matter which variety, the lotus is an important emblem to the Chinese, its magnificent flowers, beloved. Lotus represents connections and fruitfulness, the flower is a symbol of purity and holiness, the stems and seeds used are cures for many things.

This perennial in all its parts has several names no matter the lingo. In English it is known as pink lotus, Chinese lotus, cotton rose hibiscus, sea rose, and water lotus. In Chinese, the lotus is called lian. The seeds are known as lian ji, the rhizome or root called ou or lian ou, and the entire plant spoken of as fu rong. Not only are names in question, so is whether the red lotus that grows throughout China is the same plant known to the Pharaohs of Egypt as the sacred plant of the Nile Valley.

The lotus comes into its own as a source of food in late fall and early winter months. The long round segmented part grows horizontally under water or at or near the bottom of a lake or pond. The seeds grow above water in large seed pods and when ripe are harvested from boats in the marshland and the lakes as are the leaves.

When fresh, the rhizome has the texture of a raw potato although it is more fibrous as it gets older. All parts are available dried as well as fresh, and when dried, much of this crop is made into flour, another popular use of this vegetable.

Painters, poets, chefs, clerics, and housewives use all parts of this plant. It is because of all of them, that the lotus occupies special places in Chinese lore. One such is religious. You may have seen a Buddha seated on an open lotus blossom, or seen it as a sacred plant, or you may have found lotus growing near Buddhist temples. It is used on certain festival occasions including Chung Yuan their All Souls Day. On that holiday, graves are swept and food sacrifices including those with lotus made to the departed. During the sixth month you see lotus seed pods as part of the sacrifice, and during the eighth month the rhizome gets used for that purpose.

Lotus in a painting, sculpture, or in an embroidery, has special meanings. For example, when a boy is holding a mouth organ, called a sheng, in one hand and a lotus blossom in another, that signifies uninterrupted social advancement. Should a boy have a carp next to the lotus, the wish is for one abundant year after another. A lotus blossom with a bud and a leaf speaks of a complete union or it can symbolize past, present, and future. In the days of royal examinations, a bird--usually a magpie--perched on stamens sticking up in the lotus flower and picking at its seeds represents the joy of passing one or more examinations.

There are other symbols and other words for the lotus. Lian means to bind as in a marriage; another use for the lotus signifies things uninterrupted. Lian is phonetically similar to the word for 'love' and for 'modesty,' and it can mean 'unison.' Thus, when two lotus blossoms or one and a lotus leaf are together, they symbolize sharing heart and harmony. A lotus seed case and its seeds symbolize fertility. A lotus and a fish represent a girl and boy in love. Should the lotus blossom be red, the meaning changes representing female genitalia while a red stem stands for the male reproductive organ. And in conversation, when a man speaks of coming upon a double lotus blossom, he probably means he happened upon an old flame.

The lotus is one of eight Buddhist precious things and Ho Hsien Ku, a Taoist female immortal, often holds a lotus and its stem. Women who carry a he bao or a lotus package are carrying a silk purse to ward off evil spirits. Should their he bao be embroidered with a gold fish, they want both lack of evil spirits and lots of gold.

Culinary uses for the lotus in any of its forms are many. It has a special role in food for the ill and the elderly. They and young folk use it to balance food choices and contribute to longevity. The people of Hangzhou know the lotus in a special sweet from that region called Lotus Jelly. This candy, when made from the fresh plant, is popular around the New Year as it symbolizes hope for a sweet year. You do see it all year long, but at other times it is made from lotus flour. The huge twelve to eighteen inch circular leaves of the lotus plant wrap foods very well. In China, they are used to wrap food and merchandise from markets and grocery stores. Not too many people know that the stems of the leaves are useful, too. They can be cut and cooked. Almost everyone knows that the seeds are enjoyed boiled, roasted, and if very young, eaten raw. Lotus is a staple at many banquets where you find the holes in its sausage-shaped rhizome stuffed with meats or preserved fruits. Many foods at banquets and at ordinary meals are coated with lotus flour, then fried or steamed. In addition to culinary uses, young and older women use the petals and flowers as both an astringent and a cosmetic.

Ancient recipes using lotus were found on bamboo slips and pieces of silk. Most were for a kang or stew mixed with meat and other vegetables. This type of use continues and lotus casseroles are the rage for those who want to ensure their own or their guests longevity. Not all ancient recipes are found in current books. We have never seen three particular ones including one for fresh sturgeon, salted fish and lotus; or another using lotus with carp, rice, salt and spices; or even one for lotus, celery, and dog meat.

Current recipes do have ancient roots (excuse the pun) including steaming the seeds and serving them at weddings to wish the couple many sons. During the Moon Festival, lotus seeds are used as filling for moon cakes. At holidays, the New Year included, both seed and root are cooked in honey wishing for a sweet year.

Today, restaurants serve Lotus-leaf-wrapped Duck, Steamed Stuffed Lotus Root–filled with rice, minced black mushrooms, and other ingredients, Eight Precious Duck stuffed with lotus and ginkgo nuts, melon seeds, chestnut pieces, barley, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and rice, and Sweet Lotus Soup among them. Those that serve dim sum, prepare lotus leaves filled with rice and meat or poultry and steam the packet. The diner needs to unwrap and enjoy the contents; they are flavored from the lotus leaves, the reconstituted dried leaves never consumed. Lotus petals are enjoyed fresh or fried, as are chrysanthemum petals; both are popular snacks and garnishes. Overall, this rhizome is used plain, in soups, stews, and stir-fried dishes, and the many ways already discussed. Slices of lotus can be used in any recipe that calls for bamboo shoots. We adore them fresh or dried and steamed stuffed or left plain, and we like the fresh vegetable sliced and deep-fried and served as chips. Made into a flour, the lotus is used as a tea, a component of a batter or just as a plain coating on foods before steaming or frying. Imperial Congee, a recipe used before the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) and Lotus Leaf and Rice Porridge are typical recipes served to the elderly.

Medicinally, the nature of the sausage-shaped part of the plant is considered cool. When raw, it is considered an astringent and thought to be a tonic. Chinese traditional medicine also uses raw lotus to calm fevers, cool blood, and help clear blood poisoning. Cooked, they say it improves blood, invigorates spleen, and helps the stomach. Lotus leaf, stem, stamen, and seed all have medicinal roles, even the joint between sections of the rhizome do. One health recommendation is to grind the raw rhizome and add it to rice soup after the rice is cooked. This is for reducing nasal discharge from inflamed sinuses. Another is to cook this same part adding salt then mashing it. Traditional Chinese medical doctors believe that this warm paste helps reduce throat inflammation. They also say to use the juice to stop heavy nose bleeds. Western herbal use includes using the plant in powder or liquid form in the treatment of digestive disorders, particularly diarrhea.

Western or Chinese, enjoy lotus at your table and only after consulting qualified medical personnel, should you use it for its medicinal properties. Also, enjoy the six to sixteen inch spectacular flowers. Do try to see them when visiting the lakes in the Imperial Park in Beijing’s Forbidden City or on the lake in Hangzhou, or wherever you may find them. Delight in them and in the recipes that follow.
Fried Lotus Flowers
Ingredients:
24 lotus petals
6 Tablespoons sweet bean or lotus paste
3 Tablespoons lotus flour
4 egg whites
2 cups corn oil for deep frying
Preparation:
1. Dry the petals and put a teaspoon sweet bean paste on each of them, then fold over the long way to cover the paste.
2. Mix flour and egg whites until a nice thin batter.
3. Heat the oil, then dip petal sandwiches in batter and deep fry for about two minutes. then drain and serve.
Lotus Soup
Ingredients:
1 ten ounce can lotus seeds, drained (some cans are labeled lotus nuts)
3 Tablespoons sugar, optional
3 Tablespoons crystallized ginger, minced
2 Tablespoons sesame paste (or tahini)
3 Tablespoons lotus or sweet potato flour
5 Tablespoons glutinous rice flour
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one-quarter cup cold water
1/4 cup cooked Chinese dates, minced coarsely
Preparation:
1. Mix mashed lotus, sugar (if used), ginger, sesame paste, and one-quarter cup boiled water, and stir until sugar is dissolved and all is well mixed. Make this mixture into twenty-four small balls.
2. Mix two cups of cold water with both flours and the cornstarch mixture and slowly bring to the boil stirring constantly. Add the dates and the previously made lotus seed balls and heat through. Serve immediately.
Note: If desired, one can make this with four or more cups of cold water and consume it as a tea.
Buddhist Temple Feast
Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons corn oil
10 snow peas, string then sliver them
1 carrot, peeled and cut in thin strips, then blanch for one minute and drain
2 shiitake mushrooms, soaked, stem removed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup frozen green peas, defrosted
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 Tablespoons hoisin or vegetarian oyster sauce
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 sections lotus rhizome, peeled, cut in half the long way, and sliced thin
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons lotus or potato flour mixed with an equal amount of cold water
Preparation:
1. Heat oil in a wok or shallow pan and fry snow peas, carrot, and mushrooms for one minute.
2. Add peas, broth, hoisin and soy sauces, and lotus slices and fry for two minutes.
3. Mix cornstarch with lotus flour mixture, add to the wok and bring to the boil, stir half a minute until it thickens, then serve.
Lotus Leaf Surprise
Ingredients:
2 cups glutinous rice
1 pound boneless chicken thigh, cut into half inch cubes
2 shiitake mushrooms, soaked, stem removed and diced same size as the chicken
2 Tablespoons rice wine
3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons lotus flour
6 lotus leaves, soaked in tepid water for half an hour
Preparation:
1. Cook the glutinous rice in three cups water for half an hour, then drain and set rice aside until you can handle it.
2. Mix chicken, mushrooms, rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, and lotus four and set aside for half an hour.
3. Using one leaf, put one half cup of rice in the center, flatten it and add one quarter of the chicken and liquid in the center of it, then covering it with another half cup of rice; be sure chicken is sealed inside the rice.
4. Turn the sides of the leaf in over the rice, and then roll the leaf the long way until all the lotus leaf is enclosing and wrapped around the rice. Set package down on the side where the seam is placing it on the bottom of a steamer basket. Cover the steamer and steam over boiling water for one hour. Serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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