Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"They Actually Eat That:" Lotus.

We get so much into the strange animal foods every week that we tend to overlook plants. Veggies can be strange, too. One can learn a lot about cultural values by what plants they eat - for example, there was a time and place when it was forbidden to eat root vegetables because they were underground. Also, some places just plain don't have certain plants.

Lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera) are among those plants that some places do not eat simply because they are not native. To many Asian cultures, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment because it emerges from grimy pond bottoms to float atop the water. It can also be interpreted as a symbol of chastity because it comes up so cleanly from the dirt. The Indian name "Padma" and its derivatives all come from the lotus. It's a very popular plant, to say the least. (Read: this is just scratching the surface of the lotus's cultural significance!) 

The popularity of lotuses extends into cuisine, albeit for more practical than spiritual reasons. The flowers, roots, seeds, and young leaves of the lotus are all edible. Nearly everywhere lotuses grow, people have found ways to eat them. Some cultures pop the seeds like popcorn; the not-very-edible stems can be used to flavor tea; the roots have a multitude of uses. (Yes, I have actually eaten lotus root.)

Lotus root is uncommon if not outright difficult to find in the U.S. It is easily identified by its lacy pattern and round shape. The root is crisp, crunchy, and often seasoned. Put them in salad, broil them, pickle them however you like! Lotus roots are very nutritious, particularly if one does not have enough fiber in one's diet. Buddhism and other religions that recommend vegan/vegetarianism should be flocking to lotus root and/or konjac. Remember, the latter is illegal in the United States.

Just because a plant is seen as pure and holy certainly does not mean it cannot be eaten. One could almost call it sacrelicious, but there are no prohibitions against eating lotus. It's just a little strange to most of us. Then again, in the West, a certain major religion encourages the symbolic practice of eating the flesh and blood of a certain magic individual, so we should be the last ones to judge other faiths.

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