Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lotus, Part I: Baked Lotus Root in a Honey Ginger Glaze

Baked Lotus Root in a Honey-Ginger Glaze

I love potatoes. It could be that I come from Irish and German stock, both potato-hungry nations, or that I ate lots of delicious variations as a child, or that my plump pre-adolescent self identified somehow with their starchy roundness. Whatever it was, I have always been perfectly happy with a bowl of mashed potatoes as a meal.

Having said that, I'd like to make a case for cooking with a much wider variety of starchy vegetables, for enjoyment, excitement and a more nutritionally diverse diet. Not everyone has access to international produce; it's one thing to be able to find five-spice powder, but an entirely different thing to have to hunt down fresh birds-eye chilies or ripe durian (which, amazingly, I have seen at my local Asian grocery, Sunrise Supermarket, about which you will undoubtedly hear more). However, if you are lucky enough to have someone trying to sell you fresh lotus root, you should definitely take advantage of that. I don't want to ignore the major environmental and economical impact of importing international foods, but as I lean very heavily on local produce, I'm going to save that debate for another day.

Raw lotus root - unpeeled, peeled, and sliced

In fact, though it is much more well-known in Asian cuisine, lotus is also indigenous to the American South (though the lotus root I got at Sunrise definitely wasn't locally produced). When collected by locals in the freshwater bayous of Louisiana, lotus seeds are called graines à volers (pronounced grawn-uh-vo-LAY) in Cajun French or more colloquially, "Cajun peanuts," and serve as a convenient summer snack for bayou fisherman and guides, who can harvest the raised pods as they pass by in their boats. Before the Cajuns and Creoles, though, lotus seeds were a dietary staple of the Native Americans of south Louisiana, though unlike their Cajun brethren, they ate the root (technically a rhizome) as well,  most often baked.

When selecting lotus root, look for heavy pieces that are a light warm tan color with no soft spots and little discoloration. The pretty holes you see when you cut a cross-section run all the way through the length of the root and dry out easily, so look for ends that aren't too withered as an indication that most of the root will be usable.

In many traditional Asian cuisines lotus root and seeds are used medicinally, and are considered cooling, balancing influences. There may actually be something to that, as the lotus plant "thermoregulates" - heats or cools the air inside its flowers to make a more comfortable environment for pollinating insects.

Lotus root can be used in stir-fry or soups, pan-roasted, pickled, deep fried as chips, and even candied, and I plan to explore all of those options, but I'm going to start with something simple, easy, and impressive: baked lotus root in a honey-ginger glaze.

If you don't do honey (or don't have access to local honey), agave nectar will work just fine. I know a lot of people will disagree with me about this, but I don't think that every vegan should abstain from honey; if you feel strongly that using the bees for food production is inherently wrong, then more power to you, but I am personally very concerned about honeybee populations and live in an area with access to local, ethically produced honey on every corner, so I buy from small beekeepers who keep the bees healthy and out pollinating. Agave is a great substitute, but is a little thinner than honey, so always keep that in mind.

Grated fresh ginger

Baked Lotus Root in a Honey-Ginger Glaze
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

2 medium lotus roots
1/3 c. honey or 1/2 c. agave nectar
1 rounded Tbsp. freshly grated ginger

Preheat the oven to 375 and grease a baking sheet. Start by finely grating the ginger - if you keep your fresh ginger in the freezer like I do, it's just fine to grate it while it's frozen. It will seem a little soggy when you gather it up to put in the recipe, but as far as I can tell, that's not an issue.

Peel and slice the lotus root. If there's going to be a delay before you can dress the slices, or if you're making a large batch, keep the slices in a bowl of cold water with some vinegar added to keep the lotus from discoloring.

Remove the slices from the water and dry them briefly to remove excess moisture. In a large bowl, toss the slices with the honey and the grated ginger, making sure to coat them as fully as possible. When you're done, spread them in a single layer on the baking sheet and pour any glaze that remains in your bowl over the pieces.

Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes, turn them over, and bake another 6-8 minutes. They cool somewhat quickly, so feel free to pull one out and sample for texture (but be careful, because I refuse to assume any liability for burned tongues). When they're done, take them out of the pan quickly, because the honey glaze will glue the slices down if you let them cool in the pan. I also suggest putting some water in the pan to let it soak while it's still warm, for the same reason.


Lotus Root.


  1. Another thought about bees and production: We couldn't eat most fruits or vegetables without bee hives being transported around the country to pollinate the crops. This is thought to be at the very least a vector for Colony Collapse Disorder, if not the cause. To me, that is more stressful and dangerous to bees than cultivating honey at a local apiary. But I couldn't live without them. So, I, too, am a "honey vegan." I don't generally use it for sweetening, since I bake very little and when I do, it's from a vegan recipe so there are alternatives. I normally only use it for medicinal purposes -- for teas during the cold and flu season -- but I just might try it for this. Thanks!