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Herbs as Food: Lily Bulbs

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Fall Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(3) page(s): 10. 32, and 33

Many are accustomed think of the lily as an ornamental. It is and lots more. For the Chinese, the lily as a plant has a long history. It has been food and medicine for a couple of thousand years. Known and used in the Shen Nong Classic of Materia Medica, there are many varieties and many parts of the plant used. Most familiar is the use of the tiger lily whose flower buds, before they open, are a common food ingredient. Tiger lily buds are found in dishes such as Moo Shu Pork where they are always partnered with the cloud ear fungus. You may know these buds as 'golden needles.' Less familiar as a food is another lily, the big and beautiful white lily whose leaf-like bulb is found in many soups and stew-like dishes. That is the delicious somewhat starchy lily this article is about.

This lily bulb is common when served inside a hollowed out whole brown pear. It is made with the stem-top inch cut off and set aside, the interior filled with rock sugar and lily bulb pieces and sometimes rehmannia root, as well. After the top is replaced, it is ready to steam. Then set it on a lightly oiled plate in an actively steaming pan. When put over simmering water for half an hour or longer, depending upon the ripeness of the pear, it is taken out and served warm or at room temperature. This way, the fruit and its contents are thought to soothe the throat, strengthen the lung, relieve heat, neutralize poisons, and have an impact on the heart channel. In addition to these Chinese herbal/health considerations, the lily bulb is believed to relax the mind, nourish the yin of the kidneys, be of value to those with a lingering fever, and to be useful for those with insomnia.

The pulpy lily bulb discussed is Lilium longiflorum, or the white trumpet lily, Lilium brownii. They are the most common varieties whose bulbs are enjoyed. The ones eaten are usually dug in the fall, the leaf-like bulb parts blanched in boiling water, and then dried in the sun. This L. brownii is preferred baked, grated, and used in thick soups; and it is used ground into a powder and used as a starch to thicken dishes. L. longiflorum, when whole, is used fresh or the leafy bulb parts are dried and then used. The entire bulb is also made into a flour and used as a thickener and as a coating for meat and fish. The bulb of the tiger lily mentioned above, Lilium lancifolium, is not used, but the pre-opened flower is in common use.

Did you ever see 'fritillary' as an ingredient and wonder what it was? It is called chuan bei mu and has the nickname of ‘shell mother.’ Sometimes confused with the bulb of the lily, the best ones of this herb come from the Sichuan province. It also has another name, bai he or ‘hundred get-togethers’ or 'hundred meetings.’ Perhaps the confusion is because both are bulbs, and both are in the Liliceae family. Recognition of differences may be confusing to some because they are used together medicinally, to strengthen each other as they enter heart and lung channels. Another commonality is that both are bitter yet sweet, and both are in the yin/yang dicholotomy and considered slightly cold. Before buying any lily bulbs, be sure the ones selected are not chuan bei mu. They are edible, but more bitter tasting. Dried lily bulbs can fall apart if overcooked. When preparing a dish with them, put them into long-cooked dishes such as Spare Ribs in Pot, during the last half hour or hour of cooking. Short-cooked dishes are little problem as in those, they can be put in early in the process. It is difficult to judge the time needed for cooking these dried bulbs because the older the dried bulbs are, the longer they need to cook. That said, we always purchase the largest size package and then judge the cooking based upon the first experience cooking some from that batch. Fresh, all they need is to be washed well, and either eaten as is--the preferred way--or very lightly cooked, certainly no more than fifteen minutes.

Once known as Bulbus lilii, Chinese herbal practitioners wrote that this was one of the few herbs used to nourish the heyin, and one of the few that helps the absent-minded. Perhaps they said this because it tranquilizes the mind and settles people in for a good night’s sleep. That may be why traditionally, long and fancy banquets serve the lily bulb as an herbal sweet soup at the end of the meal. Herbalists say that sleep is stronger after eating this soup than having eaten too much at such an affair.

The fresh lily flower that grows up out of this bulb is also adored. There are many varieties and they come in many colors, solid or speckled. These flowers are prized for their beauty. You can find this flower appreciated in many countries. However, the use of the bulb seems limited to the Chinese, Japanese, and some other Asian populations and also appreciated by several Native American groups in Northern California.

The nutrient content of the lily bulb is close to that of the potato. It has lots of starch, a little protein, a little Vitamin C, and trace amounts of other nutrients. More a delicacy than common food, cooked lily bulbs are often given to the elderly and to convalescents. For them and for pregnant women, it is common to cook them in chicken soup along with ginger, peanuts, and dried Chinese jujubes. For these populations, this lily soup is a tonic and an item to cleanse their blood.

Favorite recipes using the dried lily bulb include the chicken soup just mentioned. It is sometimes called 'Mother’s Soup.' Other uses include using the bulb in a congee, cooking it with shrimp, also with silk squash. Because very few cookbooks include recipes using this Chinese herb, below are the four just mentioned, and the one spoken about at the start of this article, that is the one stuffed and steamed in a pear. There are two others for your pleasure, as well. These bulbs are delicious. Needless to say, they come highly recommended, and they can be flavored to meet anyone’s taste.
Lily-stuffed Pears
6 pears, with stem attached
4 cups chicken broth
1 silk squash, peeled and cut on an angle into two-inch pieces
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 can ginkgo
20 to 24 lily bulb pieces, washed well, and boiled for five minutes
1 scallion, cut on an angle into one-inch pieces
salt and white pepper, to taste
1. Put chicken broth, sesame oil, silk squash, gingko, and lily bulb pieces into a large pot and simmer for fifteen minutes.
2. Add scallion and salt and pepper, then serve.
Hundred Get-together Shrimp
4 Tablespoons corn oil
12 medium shrimp, peeled and cut in half the long way
1 scallion, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
24 pieces of fresh or dried lily bulb pieces, cooking the dried ones for fifteen minutes
1 egg, beaten well (or two egg whites)
1/4 teaspoon each of sugar, white pepper, and salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch or lily powder mixed with one tablespoon cold water.
1. Heat oil and cook shrimp for half a minute, then drain well and set aside. Remove all oil, leaving no more than one teaspoon in the wok or pan.
2. Heat remaining oil and fry scallion and ginger for half a minute, add lily bulb and mix well, then add salt and sugar, and stir well before adding the egg. Cook for up to one minute or until the egg just begins to set.
3. Add shrimp and cornstarch mixture and cook until thickened, but not longer than a minute, then serve.
Lily Bulb Congee
1 cup glutinous rice
1/4 cup lily bulb pieces, setting five aside
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Bring six cups water to the boil, then add the rice and all but the five lily bulb pieces, reduce the heat and continue to stir for one minute. Simmer for forty minutes.
2. While this is simmering, bring a cup of water to the boil and add the five pieces and simmer them for twenty minutes, then turn off the heat.
3. Then add salt and reserved lily bulb pieces to the rice mixture and simmer another five minutes.
2. Add sugar, stir until dissolved, then serve.
Pork and Lily Bulb Soup
1/4 cup lily bulb pieces, washed well
1/4 pound boneless pork loin, cut into thin strips
1 teaspoon corn sesame oil
2 slices fresh ginger, cut into very thin strips
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 scallion, cut on an angle into slivers
1. Put lily bulb pieces and pork into two cups of watter and simmer for half an hour.
2. Heat oil and fry ginger for half a minute, then add three cups of boiling water and the entire pork mixture including the liquid and simmer an additional ten minutes or until lily bulb pieces are tender.
3. Add soy sauce and scallions, simmer an additional minute, then serve.
Spareribs in Pot
1/2 pound spare ribs, cut into two-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1 bitter melon, seeded and cut into two-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4 Tablespoons dried lily bulbs, soaked for fifteen minutes in warn water
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans
1 Tablespoon dried shrimp
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with the same amount of cold water
1 scallion, slivered, for decor
1. Mix ribs, mushroom soy, the tablespoon of cornstarch, and sesame oil in a flame-proof casserole and set aside for half an hour.
2. Heat corn oil in a wok, add bitter melon and garlic and fry for two minutes, then add a cup of cold water and simmer for ten minutes.
3. Put bitter melon mixture and all the other ingredients except the scallion and the cornstarch water into the casserole and mix well. Add another cup of water, and simmer covered for three-quarters of an hour.
4. Mix in the cornstarch water and bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, sprinkle the scallion on top and serve.
Herbal Sweet Banquet Soup
1/4 pound fresh lily bulbs, washed well
1 large white tremella fungus
3 Tablespoons wolfberries (lycium chinensis
) 1 ripe banana
1 almost ripe banana, peeled and sliced into one-third-inch pieces
1/2 Chinese rock sugar bar, cut into one-quarter-inch pieces
1. Separate lily bulb into individual sections, rewash and dry on paper towels. 2. Tear the tremella fungus into one-quarter-inch pieces.
3. Put all ingredients into a glass or ceramic bowl and steam for half an hour. Serve hot or warm.
Silk Squash Soup
4 cups chicken broth
1 silk squash, peeled and cut on an angle into two-inch pieces
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 can ginkgo nuts
20 to 24 lily bulb pieces, washed well, and boiled for five minutes
1 scallion, cut on an angle into one-inch pieces
salt and white pepper, to taste
1. Put chicken broth, sesame oil, silk squash, gingko, and lily bulb pieces into a large pot and simmer for fifteen minutes.
2. Add scallion and salt and pepper, then serve.

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