The trend of using flowers and microgreens as garnishing has picked up in the last couple of years and can make a dish look outrageously beautiful. From entrees to cocktails and desserts, they have found a place in many restaurants. But they are more than just eye-candy. When you deep-dive into India’s culinary history, you realise that India is home to many species of edible flowers and that various communities, for centuries, have depended on the forage around them for survival. While some of these edible flowers and inflorescence maybe be more revered for their therapeutic value, others for their surprising flavour and texture, some for the heady aroma that it imparts, and more recently for aesthetic appeal. In traditional cooking, most edible flowers are cooked into fritters, stir-fries and curries, or steeped into teas and beverages. Anup Kumar Gupta, Executive Chef at Taj Aravali Resort & Spa, Udaipur, believes, “There’s nothing quite like picking fresh flowers and tossing them into your food—they have so much personality. They’re a pronounced and clean flavour boost and contribute an unexpected textural contrast to dishes.”
The evergreen rose is one of the most common edible flowers. It is wide accepted and has been traditionally used in Indian cooking for eons. Its perfumed notes can perk up any drink, dessert and dishes like biryani. You can use their fresh petals on their own, extract the essence for a juice, or transform them into a dust or when grounded together with sugar, can dust any dessert—from an Awadhi dessert to a Middle-Eastern baklava. The petals can also be crystallised and used to flavour drinks, sugar and even icing for cakes. They are commonly sighted in the form of gulkand. “Rose pairs well with Awadhi-influenced desserts and can be incorporated into most of them. You can also catch them in kulfis, faloodas, sherbets and teas as this flower is a natural coolant,” says Chef Gupta.
Similarly, the Indian marigold has also been used generously in cooking. Toss them into salads or sprinkle them over sautéed fish or prawns for a citrus touch. “The yellow and vermillion blooms taste somewhat like tarragon and lends their flavour and colour to rice dishes like saffron does. These refreshing florals can be dried and made into dust to be used as a mild flavouring. It is easily accessible and its bright colour makes it a popular choice to nestle onto desserts and beverages as a garnish. I have made decoctions of marigold and paired it with chocolate to make interesting desserts,” adds Chef Gupta.
If there’s one flower that is eaten by most Indian communities, it must be the abundantly available banana flowers. Rakesh Raghunathan, food blogger, show host and musician who travels to various parts of India to research and document food for Puliyogare Travels, says the process of extracting the banana florets is a laborious one. The moment you cut into it, it must be cooked immediately as it turns black on oxidization due to its high iron content. “Tamilians make a kootu (dal) with banana flowers. We also make a poriyal (a stir-fry) by cooking it with mustard, urad dal, red chillies and curry leaves, or dunk it in an urad dal mixture and fry them to make vades. Because of its good water content, it is also added to sambars to substitute drumsticks or pumpkins,” says Raghunathan. In Kerala, these long, purplish flowers are used to make the popular Vazhaipoo Poriyal.
Chef Gupta reasons that the essence of a banana flower dish is the same in various regions, but the corresponding oils, spices and tadkas change. In South, it is cooked in coconut oil, with curry leaves and mustard seeds. In the West, it is tossed with Malvani masalas. In Bengal and Assam, it’s swapped for mustard oil, panch phoran and fenugreek seeds. In Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, it is simply boiled and eaten as an accompaniment to meats.
Mitali G Dutta, an entrepreneur and renowned food blogger from Assam who owns FoodSutra By Mitali, says the banana flowers are eaten by non-tribal Assamese as a simple stir-fry with basic seasonings or added to chicken preparations; it is also pickled. “We, too, eat them as fritters coated with rice flour. The Karbi community eats at as a mash with no oil. The pitika (Assamese for mash) is made of banana flowers, black sesame seed paste and lemon juice,” she says. In Manipur, banana flowers are cooked with chillies and dry fish to make Ironba. She adds, “The Mising community pairs these blooms with pork to make a delectable delicacy. It’s super healthy and its high iron content makes it ideal for pregnant women, lactating mothers and young children.”
Also read: The Phoenix of Assamese Cuisine: Khar
Many varieties of sweet-looking florals actually pack a powerful punch. The peppery nasturtium is one such edible flower. “These spicy flowers come in shades ranging from pale yellow to deep red and is a winter bloom that you drop into a bowl of soup or pasta. This flower has a respectable place in Ayurveda. It balances the pitta dosha as it is a powerful coolant,” says Chef Gupta. He adds that honey bees flock toward these flowers, and we also make nasturtium-flavoured honey.
Popularly, these peppery flowers are tossed into salads with lettuce and other herbs and also appear in entrée plates. Due to their cool characteristics, they do well in sherbets and beverages. For example, it can be clubbed with apples, carrots and celery to make a decoction, or with cucumber and lime for such cooling benefits. It also can be made into a peppery oil and paired with meats to cut their richness and unleash their peppery flavour. The rule of thumb for peppery flowers is easy—think about what you would normally use household condiments for and substitute them for the flower instead.
Also Read: How to Make Gajar ka Halwa at Home
In Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, jute flowers are a delicacy too. Available during April and May, they are called Sanai flowers and are a rare combination of sweet and pungent. For vegetarians, these yellow flowers are plucked at the budding stage and favorably paired with chickpeas, to make the Sanai Channa curry. For non-vegetarians, it is matched with dried sweet water shrimps to make Sanai Jhinga. Another combination is with moong dal to make Sanai vadis.
Then comes zucchini, red pumpkin and bottle gourd flowers, which have a special place in indigenous cooking as well as western cooking. Chef Gupta elaborates, “During the monsoons, when the red pumpkin is young and green, its leaves are tender, and the flowers are yellow, all three are plucked by people in UP and Bihar, and cooked with seasonings to make red pumpkin saag. The flowers are the secret ingredient that enhances the taste and texture of the whole dish. Zucchini flowers are 3 to 4 inches long, have a pungent profile, and can be stuffed with mushrooms (button or portobello).” Simply pre-cook the mushrooms with onions, garlic and herbs. Add cheddar cheese and gently stuff this mixture into zucchini flowers from the top. Sear it with canola oil or grapeseed oil. When Chef Gupta worked at Taj Land’s End, Mumbai, he would serve this rich and aromatic dish with Chorizo oil made of hazelnut and pinenut.
Sweet as Honey
Chef Gupta proceeds to wax eloquent about the gorgeous violet or scarlet-and-purple rhododendron. “My first acquaintance with these short shrubs was when after I completed by advanced mountaineering course and trekked up Bhagirathi and Shivalik. We bit into the sap of this flower and it was sweet like honey. We ended up bringing back 20 kilos of this flower with us.” The most popular use is as a squash that is bottled and sold in many stores. It can also be pressed into honey, sweet jams and juice cordials. The exotic rhododendron grows in the Himalayan belt, in Sikkim, Uttarkhand and Himachal Pradesh, above 14,000 feet and is not accessible to most, making it expensive and served at select restaurants. The flower is rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C and is a fantastic antioxidant that mitigates high altitude sickness when consumed.
In Tamil Nadu, neem flowers are a delicacy. They are absolutely bitter and are available during peak summer. “Under the tall neem trees, the locals would spread a white cloth and as the day goes by, the flowers that drop down would be collected. The size of these flowers is as much as a fingernail. They are then checked for impurities, dried under the sun and stored for the entire year. These flowers are incorporated in rasams. The neem flowers would be deep fried with chillies, until they turn black because that’s when the flavour unleashes. It is then powdered to make Vepampoo Podi that is eaten with rice. It can sort out an upset stomach or mouth ulcers, and is good for the skin, and fights nausea and anorexia,” explains Raghunathan.
Edible flowers like lavender, chamomile, jasmine, and hibiscus can be infused in teas. “Chamomile has detoxifying properties and is steeped into tea to unleash these medicinal values. Not to mention how aromatic they are. Simply put these flowers into hot water, add black or green tea, and let it steep. Then drink up. Hibiscus makes refreshing citrus-flavoured tea, while the jasmine’s aroma helps in scenting teas and you can watch them bloom in your cup,” says Chef Gupta.
Similarly, because they are mild, they can be added to desserts and other beverages as well. Lavender-flavoured sugar and honey can be used in cakes and biscuits, while the fresh flower complements meats like pork, lamb and chicken as well. Jasmine-flavoured rice is commonly made too, and the bloom is added to cakes, cookies and other bakes. On the other hand, “Sage flowers are stark blue or violet hued and find similar uses like hibiscus and lavender, but the former is stronger and more intense and should be handled delicately,” says Chef Gupta.
Blooms from the North-East
The hibiscus goes by various names. In north-east India, it is called roselle or tenga mora, while in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is called gongura. Dutta says that the non-tribal Assamese communities cook the flower with fish, along with its leaves. “It has a largely citrus profile, with a hint of bitterness and pairs well meats. In Telangana, the flower is cooked with mutton and is called Gongura mamsam, the Karbi community pairs the bloom with pork and it is believed to reduce sugar levels. It can also be added to lentil curries or made into a chutney,” says Dutta.
Speaking of the Bodo community, Dutta adds that they abundantly use edible flowers that grow in the region. “The principle is simple: The fibrous flowers with thick petals, such as the lotus or banana flowers, are prepared with meats like chicken and pork because the time taken to cook all ingredients is somewhat similar. When it comes to smaller, more delicate flowers, such as pumpkin and papaya flowers, they can be cooked with fish as they cook faster. If such flowers were to be added to meat preparations, the extended cooking time would cause the flavours to be lost, or, in some cases, the flowers to burn or disappear.
The aromatic moringa flowers are called Sojina is Assam and bloom between February to March. “Non-tribals eat it as fritters, while the Bodo community pair it with fish. The Sojina bibar onla is a thick-gravied fish preparation that also includes rice flour. Moringa blossoms have anti-inflammatory properties and lowers blood sugar level. Then comes colocassia flowers that are called Thaso by the Bodos. These yellow blooms flower between May to September and is cooked with pork to make thaso bibar bathwan. These iron-rich florets can be cooked with dry or fresh fish too,” elucidates Dutta.
The white and yellow flowers from the curry leaf plant are made into fritters. As are pumpkin, ridge gourd and Bokphool flowers. But the Bodos cook them with fresh water fish. The local Bhet phool or water lilies bloom between June to September and is great for digestion. It is clubbed with rice flour and fresh or dry fish to make Agnai Bibar Bathwan. The lotus or podomphool is available between September to October. The flower with the stem is made as a sabzi and some households add pork or chicken to this to make Thoblo Bibar Sabji. The wasabi-like mustard flowers make a Manipuri soup called Hangam. These edible flowers can also be paired with something sweet to balance the flavours.
“The bitter Sewali flower blooms between September to January and is cooked with rice flour and dry fish. Some communities also fry it or cook it with eggs. Ridge gourd flowers and papaya flowers are cooked with fresh fish as well dry fish or with other vegetables, but not with other meats. The Tita (Assamese for bitter) flower that blooms between October to November is added to Khar—the alkaline dish made by filtering banana peel ash. It is also cooked with other vegetables or with eggs,” adds Dutta.
In Manipur, this bloom is called Nongmankhaand is made into a dry-fried dish, much like the bitter gourd preparation as it, too, is bitter and an acquired taste for many. The flower helps heal skin diseases. Another bitter bloom is the Indian Trumpet flower or Midnight Horror that is available from June to July and is great for your metabolism. The Gambari or cotton tree flowers are also bitter, available between April to May, and is eaten as a stir-fry. The Omoraor hog plum flower is also cooked with dry fish.
Botanical cocktails have caught the fancy of many mixologists. The pea flower that is available in North-East India is infused in drinks for its violet colour and sharp taste. Edible-flower-infused syrups, floral spirits and liqueurs of Rhododendrons, the berry-red Amaranths, Hibiscus and Lavender are tucked into fruity beverages. Some drinks just have blooms floating in the drink so as not to overpower or take away from the drink itself.
Many edible flowers can be eaten straight up in salads, and not to mention that they look beautiful. Most need to be cooked delicately to hit the perfect flavour note. Desserts, too, have upped their game with edible flowers. So, when in doubt, put a flower on it.
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