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August 11, 2011

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Lotus eaters savor symbolic flower

AUGUST is the peak time for the lotus to flower, and throughout China there are vast expanses of pink and white flowers stretching as far as the eye can see in comforting visions of tranquillity.

Chinese people, like most Asians, love the lotus for its symbolism - a pure and beautiful flower rising on a stem above the mud where it is rooted. It symbolizes perfection, purity, nobility of spirit and rising above the material world.

Lotus petals, leaves, roots, rootlets (large and small rhizomes) and seeds are all edible and are served in Chinese cuisine and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Leaves are mostly used for wrapping glutinous rice.

Lotus petals can be cooked with sugar to make sweet congee. The small roots are cooked in different ways. In Shanghai they are cooked with glutinous rice and osmanthus syrup. In Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, locals root powder to make oufen, a sweet and tangy translucent soup.

Lotus seeds can be served in various ways, fried with vegetables or used to make lotus tea with a light flavor and herbal fragrance.

One of China's greatest herbologists, Li Shizhen (1518-1593), wrote in his medical opus "Ben Cao Gang Mu" ("Compendium of Materia Medica") that lotus, especially its seed, nourishes the heart and removes "toxic fire," a term in traditional Chinese medicine.

This week, we introduce four lotus dishes made by Chinese chefs in authentic Chinese ways.

Sautéed lotus roots with cress and lily

Tony Su, executive chef at The Langham Xintiandi Shanghai, presents his sautéed lotus roots with cress and lily (68 yuan/US$11). The eye is drawn to the colorful presentation with green string beans, white sliced lotus root, red jujubes and carrot cut into the shape of butterfly. All are placed in a golden nest made of dough.

"My focus is not only on the presentation, but on the pairing of flavor, texture and aroma," says Su.

The dish has a crispy texture and light flavor. The lotus root and diced water chestnuts are crispy and have a natural sweetness. Jujubes (Chinese dates) and yu'er (a rare mushroom from eastern China) add a pleasant fruity taste and aroma and a subtle note of wood.

There is no extra service charge at The Langham.

Sommelier Benjamin Zhang, who specializes in pairing Chinese cuisine with wine, recommends this lotus dish be enjoyed with Sensi Collezione Pinot Grigio, 2009. "It's a crispy and light wine that can highlight the fresh nature of the lotus root," he says.

Steamed chicken lotus seed and lotus leaf

The chef also recommends his steamed chicken lotus seed and lotus leaf (98 yuan). "Serving seasonal food is important for health. The middle of August is the golden time for serving lotus, the seeds are big and tender and the leaves have a strong fragrance," he says.

The chicken, marinated in huadiao wine, tastes tender and rich. The lotus seeds with a soft texture taste sweet and mile. Both absorb the aroma from the lotus leaf, leaving a pleasant aftertaste.

The sommelier recommends pairing this dish with creamy and nutty Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuissé, Burgundy, 2008, to highlight the chicken flavor and the mellow huadiao character.

Steamed chicken and frog meat wrapped in lotus leaf

Wiboon Kang, the Chinese executive chef at the InterContinental Shanghai Puxi, introduces two specialties - a main dish and a dessert.

The main dish is steamed chicken and frog meat wrapped in lotus leaf (38 yuan), a seasonal offering. Kang explains that the frog meat has been marinated in a ginger and onion sauce to remove its earthy taste. He adds red dates that are "warm" (yang energy) to strengthen the aroma and balance the flavor of frog meat, which is "cold" (yin energy) in nature.

Pieces of ham are added before it's wrapped and steamed to provide plenty of juice. When the wrapper is removed, a pleasant leafy aroma is released. Both chicken and frog meat are tender, lean and firm. There's also the juice and the aroma of the ham which tastes rich and balanced.

Bai nian hao he eternal love

The dessert (22 yuan) has a romantic name bai nian hao he, which means eternal love. "I usually make the dish for newlyweds," says chef Kang. "The lotus seed plays a dual role.

On one hand, its soft texture, light sweetness and mild flavor give the soup a multi-layered taste. On the other hand, lotus seed has an auspicious meaning - giving birth to a baby soon. And this conveys my good wishes."

In addition to lotus seeds, the soup is made with red bean paste, lily root, red dates, longan fruits and tremella, so it's smooth and fragrant. The sweet-and-sour flavor from the red dates, together with slight notes of bitterness from the lotus seed, leaves a long and pleasant aftertaste.

Eating lotus, appreciating lotus blossoms and reading poetry about the lotus are traditional Chinese ways of enjoying this season.


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