Where cuisine is concerned, people don’t often think of flowers beyond using them for garnish, but they can take a person’s gastronomics to the next level. The chef can show some class while diners experience flavour, health, and a little admiration.
“Drink the dew on the magnolia in the morning, and eat the fallen petals of the autumn chrysanthemum in the evening.”
—Qu Yuan, Warring States period
Look across time
Confucius advised people not to overeat finely-milled rice or finely-cut meat. This is the man who handed humanity its first set of chopsticks, so his teachings are the core of Chinese food culture. Perusing the sea of ancient Chinese texts, poems, and novels, gourmet food has found its way onto the pages of many. Golden ages of culture gave birth to dishes that reflect a high-minded and colourful people. There’s a rabbit hot pot named “Boiling Rosy Sunset Light,” and another called “Baking Gold and Boiling Jade” made from deep-fried bamboo shoots. Ancient ingredient selection included everything from plants and meat to fish and fungi, but the most elegant of all was the flowers.
As early as the pre-Qin period, scholar-officials consummated their nobility by eating flowers. The great poet Qu Yuan said, “Drink the dew on the magnolia in the morning, and eat the fallen petals of the autumn chrysanthemum in the evening. Like the phoenix, don’t drink anything but dew, and don’t eat anything but bamboo shoots.” During the Han, Wei, and Jin dynasties, the health benefits of fresh flowers were well known. Nobility and commoners alike ate them to “leave permanent fragrance in the mouth, benefit the meridian system, and treat diseases.”
By the time the Tang and Song dynasties came about, flowers had become a normalcy in mainstream cuisine. Culture heroes of the day let their imaginations and passions run wild while developing exquisite flower recipes. In the recipe book Mountain Home Light Diet compiled by Lin Hong of the Song Dynasty, 15 dishes related to flowers were recorded. Some use fresh flowers, others dried.
Flowers for eating
Chrysanthemum petals and white rice combine to make the “Golden Rice” recipe in Mountain Home Light Diet. Regular consumption of this dish is said to improve longevity. Mix osmanthus flowers, honey, and cooked yams for a powerful dessert. The fragrant jasmine is versatile and can be brewed in tea or as seasoning in tofu. Empress Wu’s favourite Song Dynasty dish was vegetable salad with peony petals.
Su Dongpo once said in his Later Ode of Chrysanthemum, “Eat its seedlings in spring, leaves in summer, flowers in autumn, and roots in winter.” Traditional Chinese medicine uses flowers to help with human ailments common during the season in which they bloom. Chrysanthemum and osmanthus are autumn bloomers and have moisturizing effects that are particularly helpful during the dry season.