Eating Flowers: Blooms on my Plate
Spring blooms are colouring the world up. But there's more to flowers than just sight or smell. From the way the trend of edible flowers is appealing to taste, growing your own food is only set to become prettier, says Aarti Kapur Singh.
The culinary use of flowers dates back to centuries ago. Many cultures use flowers in traditional cooking. While the influence of middle-Eastern traders first introduced petals into cooking pots in India, today it is a blooming trend. From pansies in popsicles to mustard in sushi and lavender frosting on cupcakes, chefs today are experimenting with fragrant, flavoursome, and exotic edible flowers in their menus.
Back to Basics
Flowers are used in Indian cuisine nationwide. The mouth-watering rogan josh is not reddened by tomatoes, but by ratanjyot, extracted from the cockscomb flower, locally known as mawal. Chef Abbas Bhat, Executive Chef, RK Sarovar Portico, Srinagar says, "Wazwan cooking cannot be imagined without the cockscomb flower. It is the key ingredient in the much-relished signature dish of Kashmiri wazwan, aloo bukhara, rogan josh, lahabi kebab and so on."
Similarly, banana flowers are used extensively in Bengali and south Indian cooking. In Tamil Nadu, they are used in deep-fried vadas or stir-fried with coconut. They are used to make a spicy dish in Bengali cuisine. Drumstick flowers are stir-fried with brinjal to make sojne phul bhaja in West Bengal where pumpkin flowers and buds are batter-fried and enjoyed as snacks. Gulkand, a rose-petal mash is used on its own, in paan, or in various desserts in northern and central India. Mahua flowers have been used by the tribes of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh to make a heady brew through the ages, but they are also now being used to make sherbets.
There is growing commitment and awareness in the culinary world to source ingredients from nature. Floral ingredients not only offer immense opportunities but also add to the novelty value of dishes. Enna Singh, a Chandigarh-based mother mixes flowers from her garden with lemonade and fresh juices to turn them into ice-creams and popsicles for her children. Sugared or candied petals are also available to enhance premium desserts and confections, including the likes of rose, mimosa, violet, and lavender. Recipes for pansy-, rose-, or nasturtium-based salads are now more common.
Chef Nishant Choubey rustles up a beautiful looking and even better-tasting detox salad using lavender and Japanese honeysuckle. He says, "My inspiration behind the dish is to give a completely new look and texture by adding lavender, basil flowers, and Japanese honeysuckle to beetroot and goats cheese. Japanese honeysuckle is also used in Oriental medicine as it helps in bringing down the blood sugar level. It is also a natural detoxifier and cleanses the liver and kidneys. Lavender is the best to boost immunity."
Chef Nishant Choubey
In an attempt to make their dishes look beautiful, chefs started using edible flowers, and for a long time, the roles of flowers were limited to beautification only. The types of flowers used were also limited. But the gradual association of chefs with botanists, chemists, and naturalists changed the way flowers are used in the kitchen. Now flowers are used to add flavour and the desired texture in prepared dishes. Adding flowers to your food can be a nice way to add colour, flavour, and a little adventure. Some are floral and fragrant while others are herbaceous. Some others will surprise you with their spicy tang – the range is vast and astounding. "Working with flowers is fun because there is a huge bunch of flavours that a garden can offer. Right from sweet and bitter to light, peppery, and citrus, there are a range of tastes that a flower can add to the dish," says Chef Anand Panwar, a pastry chef in Delhi who adds nasturtiums to a citrusy chuski and makes crème brulee with lavender.
A light touch of floral essence or an infusion in a dessert, or a syrup or floral liqueur for artisanal cocktails can give food and drinks an edgy accent. At The Hungry Monkey, in New Delhi, heady elderflower cordial is used in a tequila-based cocktail, which tastes like heaven in the summer. As the trend picks up pace in India, chefs are experimenting with blooms that are native to India such as hibiscus, marigold, and jasmine. Chef Neha Lakhani, Patisserie Chef of Troublesome Duo and Culinary Director, Constitution Club of India says, "An edible flower completes the luxe vision of any dish and imparts a multi-sensory experience to the dish. But it is important to pair them with complementary flavours in the dishes or it won't work. My favourite flowers to cook with are pansy and lavender. I use pansies in my mille-feuille as it complements the vanilla custard very well. Lavender in macaroons is delightful because the sense of smell and taste are both whipped up and the flavours are doubly enhanced. The grandest of them all is my flower and berry cake that combines the tangy flavour of berries with the sweet citrus of flowers."
The lawns outside the Roseate are a riot of colour with seasonal flowers and micro-greens, all of which find their way to the plates churned out by Chef Anand Panwar.
Chef Anand Panwar
"The best part is that flowers are seasonal and are very fragile, that’s why one has to procure it from the local terrain and this adds that uniqueness and personality in the food. I feel our knowledge about flowers and its use and application is very limited. The use of flowers in the kitchen is here to stay; it’s more a trend than a fad," asserts Chef Panwar from Roseate. It’s small wonder then that the menu here changes with the seasons, depending on what's blooming in his backyard. Currently, begonias are in profusion and the flowers and leaves are plucked directly from the pots to be paired with fish and seafood for the acidity that it imparts to the dish.
“Edible flowers have a distinct taste, and no matter how flat the palate of the diner, the fact is that it does truly make a difference,” says Chef Ashay Dhopatkar, who partners with Neha Lakhani at Troublesome Duo, and is one of the Culinary Directors at Constitution Club of India. Dhopatkar uses a mix of flowers such as fragrant marigold, tangy calendula, sweet viola, and peppery nasturtium for his signature creations.
Chef Ashay Dhopatkar
Chef Neha Lakhani
More than flavours
While they can enhance the appearance and/or flavour of finished food and drinks, the opportunities for using flowers in food certainly does not end there. There are a lot of health benefits that the buds and blooms hold within them. Many of the common herb flowers, such as basil, borage, rosemary, dill, oregano, and thyme have the same flavour and medicinal value as the leaves, just not as intense. And the numerous varieties of mint can be added to the edible flowers list, such as apple, orange, and chocolate; they add a wide array of zest and flavour, besides calming the stomach and aiding digestion. Flowers are natural plant foods, and contain many health-enhancing nutrients. For instance, dandelions and nasturtiums have antioxidant properties and flavonoids. They also have four times more beta carotene than broccoli! Similarly, cockscomb, rose, and marigold are a rich source of vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, pyroxidine, niacin, and vitamins E and C.
Talking about the goodness of some fresh blooms, Chef Ashay Dhopatkar says, "Fresh flowers act as antioxidants and curb the fatty nature of the food. Fresh edible flowers also have anti-aging properties, and some edible flowers have anticancer quality as well." Chef Abbas Bhat from RK Sarovar Portico says, "Cockscomb not only adds fragrance and flavour to the dish, but also has many health benefits such as treatment for intestinal worms, blood ailments, and liver and kidney issues."
Flowers are instant alleviators to anything – homes, moods, and now, even food!
With floral cooking, the sky is the limit. To enhance the glam quotient of your drinks and beverages, simply add some flowers to water before you freeze them as cubes to flavour your beverages.
Here are some other ways in which flowers that can glam up your culinary delights:
1. Marigold, also known as 'poor man's saffron' can be used to zing up soups, pasta, or rice. Rich in Vitamin C, the flower reduces fevers, aids digestion, and pumps up the immune system.
2. Nasturtium incorporates sweet, as well as spicy and peppery flavours and is, therefore, a wonderful ingredient for fruit and vegetable salads, as well as quiches and cheeses. Try garnishing your lassi with it.
3. Gladiolus imitates a lettuce-like flavour and is equally crunchy. Add it to sandwich spreads or mousses and dips. Individual petals can also be tossed in salads.
4. The borage flower tastes like cucumber and pairs very well with seafood - crabs, lobsters, and fish.
Chef Nishant Choubey of Roseate shares a recipe for his famous lavender salad!
Salad of homegrown lavender, salted beetroot, Japanese honeysuckle, and goats cheese with mustard lime dressing
Roast 50 gms beetroot under 50 gms sea salt and then cut cubicles of the vegetable. Simmer 100 gms orange juice with 20 gms sugar till it gets thick. Wash a few lavender flowers and Japanese honeysuckle flowers and keep it fresh. Take a teaspoon of mustard paste and emulsify it with a tablespoon each of olive oil and fresh lime. Chill a handful of rocket leaves. Brush the plate with orange sauce and arrange the ingredients. Garnish with goats cheese, cherry tomatoes, caper berries, and a spoonful of cucumber shavings. Sprinkle some lavender flowers, honeysuckle, and basil flowers. Drizzle some mustard-lime emulsion and serve immediately.