Cooking with Flowers

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Ginger honey dressed mascarpone stuffed squash blossom
Ginger honey dressed mascarpone stuffed squash blossom

 

I am looking at my lovely plate bursting with colours but what catches my fancy is a bright purple flower – a pansy. So what do I do with that I ask Chef Nimish Bhatia who is sitting opposite me explaining his love for cooking with flowers. Well, eat it he said and I put it in a bit reluctantly in my mouth and instantly realize that it actually tastes very nice. Flowers are increasingly finding place in the kitchen and this is a trend that is slowly becoming popular.

Macroons made of hibiscus juice
Macroons made of hibiscus juice

Looking Back

My earliest memory of edible flowers goes back to a recipe of a simple recipe made with banana flowers and grated coconut tossed in simple spices that had the most amazing taste. These little flowers are quite a task to cook as they contain a pistil and calyx that need to be removed prior to being chopped. And that is certainly a mammoth task and it took me some time to realise that cooking with flowers is not as simple as it looks. A trend that is fast catching up in the culinary circuit today is to use flowers in your food. In fact there is a big movement towards growing flowers that are specifically cultivated to be part of food including the likes of dianthus, calendula, nasturtium, pansy, marigold, lavender, borage, calendula, lilac, hollyhock, day lilies and tulip. Others like Hibiscus, Rose, Nasturtium, Jasmine, Coriander, Pumpkin, Banana, Lavender, Coriander, Basil, Sunflower, Daisy, Chrysanthemum, Drumstick, Radish and Dandelion flowers are also finding favour among chefs. In fact salads, steaks, cookies, cakes, ice-creams and beverages can be made using edible flowers and adding them to food is a nice way to add both colour and flavour. “Incidentally, the culinary use of flowers goes back several years to the Chinese, Greek and Romans. Known cultures used flowers in their traditional cooking. Well, think of squash blossoms in Italian food and rose petals in Indian food,” says Executive Chef Manpreet Singh Malik, InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort. Likewise, South East Asia uses Jasmine during their Tea time, whilst people in Undivided India from the Pre Mughal times were eating/drinking Keora flower, Rose, saffron, Khus and so on. Similarly the French had been using lavender, whilst flowery pekoe was well known in Ceylon. Basically, edible flowers have been used for centuries in cooking all over the world, particularly in Asian, Middle Eastern and European cuisine. Again the taste of each flower is different and while some are spicy, and some herbaceous, others are floral and fragrant. The gamut of taste profiles in fact is quite surprising.

Chicken n banana flower salad
Chicken n banana flower salad

Cuisine Matters

Flowers are used in all the cuisines and currently it is very trendy to use fresh flowers or infuse flowers in food. A lot of flowers were earlier used for its décor value but now they have become a part of the mains and short-eats. “It is not uncommon to see flower petals used in salads, teas, and as garnish for desserts, but they inspire other uses as well. Lavender flowers which are sweet, spicy and perfumed are a great addition to both savoury and sweet dishes like a kheer or a Biryani. Roll spicy ones like chive blossoms into handmade pasta dough, incorporate floral ones into homemade ice cream, pickle flower buds like nasturtium and use them to make a floral simple syrup for use in lemonade or cocktails,” insists Chef Nimish Bhatia. Chefs today are finding ways to incorporate edible flowers in several aspects of their menus. The appetizer, salad or soups may be garnished with vibrant, tasty, edible flowers and your main course can contain blend of edible flowers to enhance the flavour and overall visual appeal of the dish. Edible flowers can also be used in pastries, sorbets and other desserts. “Chefs have also started using them in Indian cuisine now. Initially, they were eaten for therapeutic reasons but modern cuisine has rediscovered them and they are now used not only for their taste but also to create bold and intriguing blends of fragrance and colour,” says Chef Alok Verma, Executive Sous Chef, The Imperial New Delhi. Karan Dogra, Executive Chef, Goldfinch Hotel Delhi adds, “pansies could be used for their mild flavours and their wintergreen taste. It could be used as decoration purpose too. Keep scissors and tweezers handy. Clip flower stem as close to base as possible, snip off sepals – the green flaps on back of flower hold what is left of stem with tweezers.”

Trio of drumstick palya with mysore dosa
Trio of drumstick palya with mysore dosa

Floral Touch

Flowers are a fantastic element to combine into culinary conversion as they can change your mood, as well as the face value, fragrance and oomph factor of the dish. “Flowers are though very delicate and can be had in its original form only if it is uncooked or only unprocessed as it wilts if otherwise.  But they can be used for their flavour profile or colour profile as well. For instance, rose and hibiscus have a good and vibrant colour and have a strong, alluring aroma. Being easily available they are used as syrups, compotes as Gulkand and Paan. Others like banana flower and drumstick flower area also available easily and are used in curries but do not have a strong flavour or colour profile. Chamomile, Jasmine and Lavender have strong fragrances but low impact of colour and not easily available and used in dried or preserved format with teas or so,” avers Chef Bhatia. Abhijit Saha, Founding Director and Chef, Avant Garde Hospitality Pvt. Ltd., says, “I started cooking with flowers about 15 years ago and vegetable based flowers like zucchini flowers, pumpkin flowers, drumstick flowers and a flower called Bok Phool is commonly used in Bengal that can be crumb fried or batter fried. Flowers from herbs like basil, thyme and rosemary as well as arugula have the flavor of the herb itself and are great addition to the food.”

Assortment of flower tempura
Assortment of flower tempura

Take Care

As lovely as eating flowers can be, it can also be a quite deadly if you do not take care primarily because they can be loaded with harmful pesticides. “Eat flowers you know to be consumable, if you are uncertain, consult a reference book on edible flowers and plants. It is better to consume flowers that you have grown yourself or are sure is safe for consumption. Flowers from the florist or nursery have probably been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Do not eat roadside flowers or those that grow in public parks as they may have been treated with pesticide or herbicide and roadside flowers may be polluted by car exhaust. Likewise, eat only the petals making sure to remove parts like the stamens and pistils. Likewise, if you suffer from allergies, introduce edible flowers gradually, as they may exacerbate allergies,” advice Hamsa V & Nithin, Founders, Growing Greens, a farm that grows edible flowers in Bengaluru. Ensure that the flowers you choose are grown organically as these are free from pesticides and a double check is mandatory on the edible factor before choosing the flower.  Jagdish Chandra, Head Chef, Suvaasa Resorts avers, “first and foremost is the edibility, even when a flower can be consumed there are certain portions which need to be discarded. Second are the allergic reactions, which have become quite rampant owing to various changes as some people are sensitive to certain smells, or food types. The best way to find out is before trying gather as some knowledge about the plant, study in the list available, consult someone and try and taste it yourself first before serving.” With so much said, adding flowers to your dish can certainly elevate it to another level. As Hanna Rion VerBeck said, “the greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses” and food is certainly the right way to do just that!

Tips

  • Shake flowers to remove insects or excess dirt before using them.
  • Gently wash in a large bowl of cold water and drain, let flowers air-dry on a paper towel–lined tray.
  • Flowers are very delicate, so if you are using it in its original form they have to be kept chilled and washed a few times before being use.
  • If they are preserved as a syrup or freeze/sun dried then use it as per the recipe.
  • The secret to cook edible flowers is to keep the cooking process simple, so the freshness of the flowers is not lost.
  • Flowers used fresh in salads like Frangipane, Nasturtium or Daisy can be kept in chilled water while dried flowers could be heated or lightly broiled for its flavour enrichment.

Here are some recipes made using flowers.

Warm Prawn & Shrimp Salad (courtesy Karan Dogra, Goldfinch Hotel Delhi) – Serves 1

Ingredients:

1 small bowl – Shredded red cabbage

1 small bowl – shredded lettuce

1/2 bowl squared chopped Zucchini

6-7 pieces of sweet lime

Half bowl cleaned shrimp

Half bowl cleaned prawns

Himalayan pink salt, to taste

Olive oil, 1 tablespoon

Freshly ground green pepper, 2 pinch

5-6 pansy flowers

White wine vinegar 1/2 tablespoon

1 ripped tomato

Method

Wash all vegetables and fruits and clean the meats. Toss the cleaned prawns and shrimp for 2 mins in a flat pan. Place vegetables and fruits in a big bowl, add shrimp and prawn meat (after tissue soaking the oil), add freshly ground green pepper, dice sliced tomato and white wine vinegar – toss all in the olive oil for 2 minutes again on the flat pan and remove it from the flame. Add Himalayan pink salt and pansy flowers when the dish is hot. Additionally, mustard sauce, sweet onion, and mayonnaise could be added to accentuate the taste.

Assorted flower tempura (Courtesy: Chef Nimish Bhatia) Serves four

Ingredients

100 grams Tempura flour

1 Egg

A few Ice cubes

20 grams Pumpkin flower

50 grams Banana flower

30 grams Marigold Flower

20 grams Hibiscus flower

20 grams Frangipane flower

Refined oil for frying

Method

Beat the egg and ice cubes together and gradually add tempura flour to make tempura batter. Heat oil the deep frying pan. Individually coat the flower with batter and deep fry it. Serve hot.

This story appeared in the Feb 2018 issue of Discover India magazine here: Anchor Cooking Flowers

All pics in this post are courtesy Chef Nimish Bhatia

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