Lotus root is a much-loved ingredient in many East Asian countries. So much so, that while other countries have been finding comfort in bread-baking during lockdown, Japanese people were turning to fried lotus root recipes to while away those long quarantine hours. So just what is it that makes the lotus root so popular? Here we take a closer look at this intriguing little vegetable to try and find out.
The lotus is an aquatic plant that grows throughout Asia and in parts of Australia. It is sacred to the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and is often used in art to symbolise purity and beauty. It is the national flower of both India and Vietnam.
Strictly speaking, lotus root is not a root at all, but a rhizome, which is a special part of the plant stem that grows beneath the soil (or in this case, below the water) and sends out new roots and shoots. Ginger and turmeric are both examples of other edible rhizomes. There are several varieties of lotus that are cultivated purely for their edible ‘roots’. In fact, the many different types of lotus can be divided into three categories - those grown for their flowers, those grown for their edible seeds, and those grown for their rhizomes. It is a particularly popular foodstuff in Japan, where it is known as ren kon (れんこん) and in China, where it is known as ǒu (藕), and it is also widely eaten in India, Sri Lanka and Korea.
In terms of appearance, the lotus root is cylindrical, and grows in joined segments like a string of sausages. It is light brown when fresh, turning darker brown as it matures, and is usually served sliced widthways, to reveal its distinctive dial-shaped pattern of holes. Its taste is mild, with slightly sweet, slightly tangy notes, and has been compared to that of water chestnuts, while its texture is crisp and crunchy, like celery. When cooked, it becomes softer, but still retains some of its bite, a little like a just-cooked potato.
Lotus root can be sold fresh, frozen or canned, and may be steamed, boiled, added to soups, stews and curries, pickled in vinegar, or made into lotus root tea. It is also a popular dish at banquets and celebrations, where it can be deep-fried, stir-fried, or stuffed with meats or preserved fruits.
You can buy lotus root from Asian supermarkets or online, and they’re pretty simple to prepare. If you have frozen lotus root, leave it for 10 minutes to thaw, and if you have dried lotus root, leave it to soak for 30 minutes. Next, peel off the brown skin and wash thoroughly, then slice widthways. Lotus root will discolour when exposed to air, so submerge the slices in cold water with a few drops of vinegar while you prep your other ingredients.
Health benefits and nutritional value
Lotus has been used in traditional South East and East Asian medicines for centuries, with many folk cures incorporating its seeds, roots and even the flower itself. Many of the traditional health claims surrounding lotus root have yet to be confirmed by modern science, but we do know that it is a good source of nutrients, which brings health benefits of its own.
It is a good source of both dietary fibre and slow-release complex carbohydrates, which can work together to help lower cholesterol and blood sugar, and to maintain a healthy digestive system. It is also an excellent source of vitamin C, which has powerful antioxidant effects, and helps to maintain healthy immune function. Eating lotus root will also provide a good source of copper and potassium, as well as several important B-vitamins.
If you want to try lotus root for yourself, here are some of our favourite recipes from around the internet.
Lotus root stir-fry: this simple Chinese side dish from The Woks of Life takes just 30 minutes to prep and cook, and showcases delicate, crisp lotus root at its best. Seasoning is key in this dish, with classic Chinese flavours like Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, scallions, ginger and garlic all blending together to make the perfect aromatic, crunchy stir-fry.
Kung pao lotus root: this vegan take on the classic kung pao chicken, created by China Sichuan Food, is full of deliciously spicy Sichuan flavours and takes just 15 minutes to prep and cook.
Nine lotus root recipes: this collection of recipes from Honest Food Talks is a great resource if you’re new to lotus root, or if you’re just looking for more inspiration. The article refers to lotus root by its Japanese name, ren kon, but there are dishes from other countries, too, including China, Korea, and India. Lotus root is a versatile vegetable, and you will find a wide variety of dishes on offer, from stir-fries, curries and delicate banquet dishes to lotus root tea and even lotus root chips.
Did you know that lotus seeds are also edible? Celebrate the Chinese moon festival with these traditional Chinese mooncakes, made with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks to represent the moon.