Not Just Decor: Here’s How to Cook With Flowers (and Eat Them Too)
Flowers meant for eating should be specially cultivated and treated to keep them free of e-coli and other bacteria.
As I sat down for brunch at a five star restaurant in Pune, the chef presented me with a bowl of salad that was garnished with assorted flowers. Pink, purple, white – the bowl looked vibrant with the many hues. Before launching into my meal, I reached out for the flowers – I wanted to discard them. That was when the chef interjected and told me that I could eat the flowers too!
Reluctantly, I put them in my mouth. A bite or two – and it was a revelation. I had never known chives, pansies, nasturtiums, rose could be eaten too.
My salad was followed by a round of entrees that was finally rounded off with shahi kulfi made from dried rose petals.
What did it taste like? Brilliant!
Today, flowers are not merely used for decoration and aesthetic appeal – but also to add colour and taste to a dish, thus turning an ordinary dish into something extraordinary.
Chefs these days can reel off a long list of flowers and their flavour profiles, without pausing for breath.
Elder flower imparts a citric and sweet aroma, Lavender lends a sweet fragrance, Nasturtiums impart a peppery flavour to the dishes, while hibiscus imparts a sour-tart flavour.Chef Urvika Kanoi, Owner of The Food Studio, Calcutta
Similarly, celebrity chef Akshay Nayyar advises us on the dishes where flowers can be used:
Roses can be used to make rice and desserts, Violas can be used as garnishes in salads, starters, soups and desserts, Dianthus in tea, cream soups and with fruits, Cucurbita for stuffing vegetables and Marigold in desserts and rice.
Where Did it All Begin?
The tradition of cooking with flowers isn’t new.
It can be traced back to Roman, Egyptian and Asian cultures where some of the recipes were passed down generations.
For instance, Chrysanthemums originated in China around 200 BC where they were first cultivated as a herb. Wine made from chrysanthemums were known to be served in The Imperial Palaces of China; they were also used to make rice-based cakes to be served at palace banquets.
References to Dandelions used as food actually date back to The Old Testament:
And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.Exodus 12.8
The ‘bitter herbs’ included common dandelions, chicory, coriander, sow-thistle, mint, horseradish and wild lettuce. Dandelions are abundant across Europe and the Greeks would use the whole head raw in salads or boil them in stews.
In South India, flowers are commonly had as bhajjis or fritters. Banana and pumpkin flowers have been used for this since ages.
Flowers and Flavours
Executive Chef Kapil Dubey, The Den Bengaluru, uses chives to make a host of dishes. This pretty, purple, edible flower has a light oniony flavour. Says Dubey:
There are many things you can do with chive blossoms, the easiest of which is to pull the flower heads apart and use them as a garnish or add them into savoury dishes like soups, cream sauces, potatoes, and egg dishes.
Dhawal Shah, Chief Patissier, The Dessert Street, uses flowers to add an interesting element to the chocolate desserts he makes. He uses elder flower, lavender and roses in desserts like dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate petit gateau.
Urvika Kanoi uses sugar syrup flavoured with chamomile flowers to make panacotta.
I have seen flowers on dishes for a while, and have always wanted to use them in food.
The hibiscus in her kitchen doesn’t just look pretty; instead, the gel from hibiscus is used to cook lamb. “Hibiscus has a sour-tart flavour and acts like a flavour bomb when added to food,” she says. She has also experimented and used the hibiscus gel to layer the chocolate cake. A bite into the cake and you realise how the hibiscus cuts through the rich chocolate and gives the cake a perfect mouthfeel.
Chef Anand Panwar, Executive Pastry Chef for Roseate Hotels & Resorts uses marigold petals in his quinoa biryani and daab chingri dishes. “Marigolds have similar flavour profiles as saffron,” he says.
Not only is the trend of using flowers in dishes fast catching on, but so is cultivating edible flowers. Namita Jatia of the Farmhouse Company owns a farm in Navi Mumbai where she grows edible flowers like dainthus, xenias, ixoras, hibiscus. Having started the company in 2014, she reiterates that there has been a good increase in the demand for edible flowers over the years.
We supply to most of the 5 star hotels, restaurants and organic cafes in Mumbai that are increasingly using flowers for cooking.
A Word of Caution
The trend of eating flowers is sure to make a huge comeback, but cooking with flowers is not as easy as it seems. So, before you use them to cook, here are a few things to be kept in mind. The flowers meant for eating should be specially cultivated and treated to keep them free of e-coli and other bacteria. They should not be allowed to come in contact with soil.
Namita ensures she uses organic nutrients and cultivates the flowers in a controlled environment –
As the flowers are going to be used in food they have to be thoroughly cleaned before going through the cooking process. Also, care must be taken to source it from a place that doesn’t use insecticides/pesticides.
Moreover, lots of flower are poisonous. Even a flower seller in your neighbourhood market will tell you that the bitter-tasting stamens from the flowers need to be removed before cooking them. However, Shah says that flowers like the Nasturtium can be eaten as a whole with leaves and bud.
If you are cooking with banana flowers, make sure you remove the stamen and pistil before chopping them.
Secret to Using Flowers
The secret to using flowers in food is to keep dishes simple and not overwhelm them with too much spice. Flowers on their own have a very delicate flavour that could get lost in the dish.
Technically, all flowers can be used for cooking but the more fragrant ones will always stand out. As a precaution, all you need it do is to infuse it slowly in the mixture of milk or cream which you’ll be adding to the chocolates.
So, the next time you pick flowers from your garden, don’t just use them for decoration; perhaps you can add them to your dish and watch the flavours unfold.
(A freelance food and fashion blogger, Pranjali Bhonde Pethe aims at getting people and their favourite food and style closer through her blog moipalate. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on @moipalate.)
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