Eating it with Flowers

This article was originally published under the same title in the Metro Plus supplement of The Hindu newspaper, Coimbatore, on 16 Feb 2018.

From neem and moringa to agathi, there’s a wide range of floral flavours to be discovered.

I remember the morning I found my friend Sujata plucking flowers from the neem tree in front of our house. She showed me the tiny white flowers with their subtle fragrance and told me the flowers would go into making a delicious rasam for lunch. That’s the first I had heard of rasam with neem flowers, and that set me thinking about other edible blooms.

Contrary to popular belief, which is that all of us are eating better and more diverse food than ever before, I believe that we have given up on some delicious and wholesome local foods. We are always looking elsewhere for the rare and exotic, and hence miss the wonders right under our noses. Flowers are one such category of plant foods that we often overlook.

Banana blossom is the first thing that comes to mind, being a commonly used ingredient in South Indian cooking. My favourite dish with banana flower is a stir-fry using chopped banana blossom and cooked green gram, which is a staple at home. While many people have started using banana blossoms again, and featuring it on cooking blogs, it is a difficult flower to clean and prepare. I choose to think of it as a meditative process, but since most of us don’t even have time to breathe in the mornings, let alone meditate, that is not a great selling point.

The edible flower that my mother favoured was the blossom of the moringa olifera. As children, I can’t say we loved it; our mother overrode our objections and moringa flower stir-fry appeared on the table whenever in season. As I grew older, I learnt to appreciate the distinct flavour of the tiny, creamy-white flowers. They can be eaten steamed or slightly cooked, and we usually have them in a steamed salad along with sprouts and peanuts, or in the traditional stir-fry with a lot of grated coconut.

Another discovery in the last few years is the agathi flower (sesbania grandiflora), also known as the humming bird flower). I love the shape and colour of these flowers, with their rich succulent petals in cream or a rich burgundy. To me, they taste as delicious as they look beautiful.

I have eaten only the cream-coloured ones, which are available locally. I just wash the large flowers and buds, chop them into pieces and lightly steam them, to be added to salads and the ever favourite stir-fry, garnished with grated coconut or roasted and crushed peanuts. I don’t throw away any part of the flower.

A friend told me that a stir-fry of these flowers with eggs tastes great and these can also be fried in batter.

Pumpkin flowers are on my list too. The season starts with male flowers, and then the female flowers start putting in an appearance. It is popular in some cuisines, where fritters are made by frying the flowers in a batter of rice and gram flour.

The added advantage with agathi and moringa is that these are perennial shrubs/trees that are beneficial for the soil and easy to grow. Both are also nutritive powerhouses. Neem and Cassia fistula are hardy trees and can withstand dry spells, more of which unfortunately seems to be coming our way. Banana trees are the constant companions in most South Indian homes. So, in effect, all of these are friendly neighbourhood flowers.

Being a pedestrian cook with a limited repertoire, I love anything that becomes flavourful with simple cooking, and I found to my delight that flowers fit the bill. What I enjoy about them is how lightly they need to be cooked and spiced.

Light steaming is usually enough; anything more and they can turn into mush. It goes without saying that we should choose flowers which have not been sprayed with any toxic chemicals.

Now, it’s time to eat some flowers along with fruits, leaves, and stems!

... and spread the good word!

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