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Edible Flower Cuisine: China

By Amber Royer (dandylyon85May 1, 2013

There are several cultures known for eating flowers in ancient times among them India, Rome, the Middle East and China. This article will focus on China, where edible flowers were included in the diet not only for their attractive colors and fragrances, but to promote health and physical beauty . A number of flowers are used in Chinese cookery, but we will focus on just a few: Chrysanthemum, Daylily, Lotus, Hibiscus and Rose.

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But first, a few notes on history.  The fervor for edible flower reached its height in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), when women started to consume flowers as a beauty aid for their complexions.  Wu Zetian, China's only female emperor, is supposed have been responsible for creating bai hu gao (hundred flower cake), and was also reputed to enjoy cookies that included "piney flowers."  Empress Cixi (of the Quing Dynasty), was said to have enjoyed lotus flower petal fritters.  Recipes that incorporate edible flowers show up in recipe books that date throughout various dynasties.

Chrysanthemum:  Cultivation of Chrysanthemums as a food source in China dates back to around 500 BC.  The base of the petals are bitter, and should be snapped off before eating.  They are often floated in soups or sprinkled for color into other dishes.  Not only are the flowers of chrysanthemum important to Chinese cooking, but you can eat the foliage of one variety (Chrysanthemum coronarium) as well.  Chrysanthemum greens (sometimes labeled crown daisy) are available at many Asian markets during the spring and autumn.  Young chrysanthemum greens can be eaten fresh, but mature ones should be boiled or steamed.


Daylily: Daylilies, as used for food, are mentioned in early written Chinese records.  When the flowers are dried, they are referred to as "golden needles."  (Daylilies are not true lilies.  It is very important that you identify this flower correctly, as many of its lily cousins are poisonous.  You should also note that daylilies are traditionally considered a diuretic.)  Golden needles are a traditional ingredient in hot and sour soup.  They can also be combined with a flour-based batter and fried into fritters.  The buds, which have a more vegetal taste, can be stir-fried.


Hibiscus: Chinese Hibiscus growing wild can reach a height of 30 feet or more.  It is traditionally used in teas to add a deep red coloring and citrusy flavor.  It is sometimes combined with sea cucumber and used to make a soup.  It can also be stewed together with rock candy.


Lotus:  Lotus was a popular food during the Han dynasty in China, and images of it have been found in tombs dating from that time.  Sources believe it was harvested for food much earlier than that.  Lotus flowers are a traditional - and beautiful -- garnish.  The whole blossoms (stamens and sepals removed) are often battered and fried and then sprinkled with sugar.  The stamen of the flower can be dried to make herbal tea.  All parts of this aquatic plant, from the roots to the seeds, are used in Chinese cooking.

Rose:  The earliest history of rose cultivation in the world dates back to China's Shen Nung Dynasty (2737 - 2697 BCE).  You should remove the bitter whitish part at the base of the petals (the only palatable part of the flower) before consuming.  Rose wine, a clear distillation of sorghum liquor, rose petals and rock sugar is a popular ingredient in Chinese barbecue and other Chinese sauces.  The flavor of the petals may best be highlighted in rose congee, a simple, lightly sweetened rice-based porridge.


So consider adding a little beauty to your diet with the gorgeous colors available from these and other edible flowers.  You are sure to create conversation starters, and wow the people you share flower-laden dishes with. 

PLEASE NOTE:  Just make sure that the flowers you choose are indeed edible, as many plants have toxic look-alikes.  Do not eat flowers purchased from the florist trade, as these are almost invariably sprayed with pesticides.  Anyone with pollen allergies should ensure that the stamens of all flowers have been removed before preparation.  Pregnant women and those who take prescription medications should exercise extra caution when consuming edible flowers, as some flowers may be contraindicated. 

  About Amber Royer  
Amber RoyerAs a librarian turned freelancer, Amber likes to research the history and botany behind the modern garden. Her true plantly love is the herb garden. Follow her on Google.

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