That beautiful flower that blossoms in water also creates an equally lovely root that's a staple in a lot of Asian dishes. Lotus root is an edible rhizome, a bulb from the flower of the same name that can be peeled, sliced, and eaten raw or cooked. It's an ancient ingredient used by emperors and villagers alike and proves so versatile, chefs have used the lotus root in salads and soups, in the main course, and also in many snack foods.
What Is Lotus Root?
Lotus grows native to Asia, Australia, New Guinea, and the Middle East. It's that pretty pink, purple, or white flower floating in shallow pools, lagoons, and marshes that you will often see depicted in Buddhist paintings as a symbol of enlightenment because the lotus grows in muddy waters. The outside may not look especially appetizing, as it's a pale brown color, once you slice into it coins the ingredient, the interior's lacy geometric holes make the food stand out.
One of the first known harvests of lotus root occurred centuries ago in Guangzhou, a province in southern China. It was in the Huadu district and town of Jingtang, where these foods were uprooted from the mud, cleaned up, cooked, and brought onto the plate. People still harvest lotus roots there around the Dongzhi Festival, the region's Winter Solstice celebration that follows the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Legend has it that the first lotus grew near here thanks to He Xiangu, one of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology. She gifted the starving villagers the lotus seeds, and from those plants, they received the roots and a hearty crop of food that took no effort to grow and would regenerate the next year.
How to Cook With Lotus Root
Like many vegetables, the lotus root tastes good raw, boiled, fried, and in soups, so you have a lot of options. Peel the whole root before slicing it thinly. Alone, the ingredient has a mellow flavor, but it can easily absorb whatever spices and sauces you're working with. It's also tasty when baked as a crisp chip with just a dash of salt.
If eating raw, give the slices a bath of vinegar water to take out some of the bitterness, and then place the white disks on top of a salad, vegetable tray, or even a fancy sandwich. Soup lovers should make sure to add the lotus root near the end of the cooking cycle like a garnish; if you let it sit in the broth too long, it can get sticky and starchy. Another popular way to prepare lotus root is frying, as in a classic stir-fry, or you can batter and deep fry into a tasty tempura.
What Does Lotus Root Taste Like?
If you have ever munched on a slice of jicama, you have an idea of what lotus root tastes like. It's crunchy, slightly sweet, with a little bitterness, and has a high water content that makes it refreshing. Overall the flavor proves mild enough that it can pair with almost any ingredient, and it will soak in stronger spices when used in soups—marinated or pickled.
Lotus Root Recipes
Where to Buy Lotus Root
Fresh lotus root gets harvested in the winter, long after the lotus flowers have withered and their seed pods dried. If you're going to find it fresh, this is the time, and the place to look is an Asian grocer. You want to source a lotus root that's firm, light brown, and free of cracks, soft spots, or major blemishes. Occasionally the lotus root comes with two pods, like a link of sausages. If you're lucky enough to get one of these, don't cut them apart until ready to use. Regardless of where you buy them—because lotus roots are harvested by hand, they aren't cheap to come by.
An unwashed lotus root should be wrapped in a damp cloth, and stored in the refrigerator, for around a week or two. If the ingredient has already been peeled and sliced, then keep it cool in a sealed container, and use it up as soon as possible. It's best to let the exposed pieces sit in a bath of acidulated water, which you can make by adding a little vinegar or lemon juice to regular water. This will help preserve the color and leech out any bitterness.
If you look closely at the slices of lotus root, you may notice some have seven holes and others have nine. While the taste proves similar, the seven-hole root is softer, and gets used for soups and dehydrating, while the nine-hole variety works better raw on salads, pickled, and put into a stir fry.
There's also the Jingtang lotus root, which is long and thin; as opposed to the usual short and squat. It can grow three to six feet long and is prized among the lotus root varietals. Overall there are around 300 types of lotus flowers with edible roots, though most don't have a notable difference.