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Behind The Mooncake: A Look Into The Versatile Lotus

With Mid-Autumn Festival coming up, and the abundance of mooncakes appearing on the market, the significance of this quintessential summer blossom ranges from religious and cultural importance to tasty regional traditions.

By Wilson Fok
September 7, 2021

Under the roof of an ancient Buddhist temple in South Korea, Jeong Kwan, the renowned ambassador of temple cuisine, carefully places a large cream-coloured flower into a wide vessel of tepid water. Seconds later, the dried flower blooms slowly, as the nun methodically immerses the wilted petals into the water, infusing it with the lightest touch of floral essence from the flower. The lotus tea, which she often serves, signifies the transformative power of Zen Buddhism and serves as a symbol of enlightenment.  

Parts of the lotus plant

The lotus is an authentically Asian plant – and one with crucial cultural significance. The enlarged blossom of summer stands tall and blooms wide at the tip of a forlorn stem up to 1.5 metres above the water. Such standalone quality is referenced in Buddhism; legend dictates that at the birth of the Buddha, lotus bloomed on his footprints.  

Aside from signifying enlightenment, the lotus also suggests uniqueness and purity through the “one and only” principle, as each stem can only hold one bloom at any given time. In the East, Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi paid homage to the lotus in his ancient text On the Love of the Lotus, in which he praised the lotus as “grown from the mud never stained of it, standing tall in solitude, and can only be admired for its beauty from afar”. Zhou, a pioneer in the school of Ruism in China, firmly stated the importance of thoughts of purity without any influence from surroundings, and his words continue to inspire communities and believers around the world.  

Its versatility is also celebrated in Asian food cultures, not only for the many dishes created from it, but also in forms of medicine, where infusions and teas are prepared from every part of the plant, realising the true potential of the favourite bloom throughout the summer season. Celebrated for its clean, crisp texture and unparalleled shape, the lotus root reaches iconic status in Asian cookery. The lotus can also be adopted into nourishing infusions and is a crucial ingredient in summer’s traditional lotus leaf rice porridge, with health benefits including relieving the body’s heat sensations. 

Soil to Soul's pan-fried lotus root | Photo: Soil to Soul

At Soil to Soul, Hong Kong’s first Korean temple cuisine establishment, chef Gu Jin-Kwang is staying authentic in his preparation of lotus root with just a touch of contemporary gastronomy in its presentation. The tender, hollowed roots are thickly sliced into rounds, then dipped in wheat flour batter coloured with natural ingredients such as matcha powder (green), prickly pear powder (red), and gardenia (gold). Each round resembles a blooming flower, which is pan-seared until just cooked. Gu’s tri-colour lotus root pancake has been a staple on the menu and is one of many interpretations of the humble root referenced from Korean cuisine.  

Lotus root is available year-round and its versatility spans across the many repertoires of Chinese cuisine. In Cantonese cuisine, from pork-stuffed lotus root patties to the numerous homely slow-simmered soups, the possibilities are endless. Prepared throughout the year, Northern China celebrates the muddy rhizome with a sweet creation, exemplified at Dong Lai Shun – glutinous rice-stuffed lotus root with osmanthus syrup. The sweet treat is perfectly crafted, as the hollowed cavities of the lotus root are snugly filled with soaked glutinous rice. The filled roots are first steamed and braised for hours in a thick syrup flavoured with osmanthus flowers. The finished dish is riveting. Glazed lotus root segments in the shade of terracotta boast a wonderful sheen from the thickened syrup, while titbits of osmanthus blossoms are spread all over the root, resembling marvellously golden confetti. As the lotus roots are sliced, the firm lotus root yields to the knife’s blade, making it givingly tender in texture, while the cavities are a contrasting shade of cream from the glutinous rice.  

Soil to Soul’s fried kimchi sticky rice dumpling | Photo: Soil to Soul

It’s worth noting that the lotus stem – the thin stalk connecting the muddy root and the flower – has a similar hollowed structure. The tender stalks are also best harvested young and tender, and are excellent in stir-fries with fermented chillies in Hunan cuisine as well as a seasonal salad ingredient in Vietnam. 

Unlike its muddy root, the lotus leaf is one of the most recognised features of the lotus. Spinning round above the water, the lotus leaf is shaped like an inverted umbrella that’s spread open, almost like a wide funnel. This fresh leaf is often used as a flavouring ingredient. Used in both fresh and dried forms, the leaves are most notably used as a wrap for ingredients such as the popular lotus-wrapped glutinous rice, where chicken, cured sausages, and mushrooms are mixed with glutinous rice and wrapped with lotus leaf; they’re steamed until the leaf wilts slightly while the rice turns a creamy, rich texture that bears the sweet scent of lotus.  

Interval's lotus leaf-wrapped threadfin fish | Photo: Interval

Alternatively, the lotus leaf is a perfect match with chicken – or in Interval’s case, with threadfin fish. Locally harvested and cut into fillets, the fish is enveloped in a beautifully fresh lotus leaf, allowing the leaf’s aroma to build up within the parcel, before it’s charcoal-grilled to intensify the aroma. The transformative power of charcoal enriches the aroma deposited within the rich flesh of the threadfin, adding a layer of complexity to the dish at the popular restaurant at Cyberport on Hong Kong Island. 

The lotus leaf, like other parts of the plant, is also treasured for its medicinal properties. Young lotus leaf can be used fresh in infusions or dried, and is believed to purge excessive heat from the body to restore the homeostatic balance. Its health benefits also include improving bowel and digestive tract health. Similarly, the lotus pod, a cup-shaped fruit of the lotus, has similar medicinal properties to that of its leaves. Harvested ripe while the pod is still green, it’s filled with cavities; each cavity holds one lotus seed, which is also edible and a delicacy. The pods are sun-dried and used in Chinese teas and soups, and are believed to aid in digestion and enhance the purging of body dampness when consumed with other summery ingredients such as winter melon and dried foxnuts. 

Tea ceremony in silent temple (Nesosa in the Republic of Korea)

While most uses of the lotus accentuate its light aroma, the lotus seed is the most versatile of them all. The marble-sized seed is particularly outstanding as a dessert ingredient, and are famously simmered in sweet soups to be enjoyed after dinner. The seeds are also the primary ingredient in traditional Cantonese mooncakes. Grown all over China, the best lotus seeds originate from the province of Hunan, where the harvests are larger and most consistent in quality. The best seeds are called “three in an inch”, where three lotus seeds lined up to an inch are considered the ideal size. First, the seeds are steamed, mashed, and cooked slowly in sugar and home-made brown sugar syrup to create a glossy lotus seed butter. This process is laborious and slow, but the outcome is well worth it. Ideally, lotus seed paste should be dense and richly brown all over with a glossy finish, while the flavour should be nutty with lingering notes of caramel – a perfect accompaniment to salted egg yolk and pastry for a fantastic Mid-Autumn Festival traditional treat. One trick for using lotus seeds is to split the seeds open and extract the green sprouts; they’re used in a wonderful form of tea to help soothe coughing and dry throats.  

Widely used in both fresh and dried forms, the best lotus parts for food consumption can be reliably sourced at markets where the plants are grown organically and without pesticides, especially when used for teas. The lotus is a superb treasure with many fine qualities for health – and obviously a beauty all on its own.