Pick and choose... from mahua, kadamba and lavender to the royal favourite, rose. Edible flowers promise to tantalise taste buds.

Meera Joshi

When the mahua flowers in the forests of central India, tribals there get active, for the musk-scented flowers oozing with a honeyed liquid, must be gathered. They are far too useful to be allowed to wither away. Though better known for being fermented into liquor, mahua flowers are also dried and stored for later use. With their high sugar content they are perfect as a sweetener. Often, into a pot full of edible leaves are dunked a few mahua petals, which lend a distinct taste and flavour; or they are simply diced and mixed with sattu, a simple parched grain meal-in-one.

High-end restaurants have taken to the mahua too, adding a couple of dried or crystallised pieces to a bowl of vanilla ice cream to give a touch of the exotic.

Early spring also sees the kachnar flowering in the northern plains. The pale pinkish-white buds are picked to prepare seasonal delicacies, smothered in oil into a fresh pickle, or dropped into broth. Boiled and strained, the tender buds are added to curds to make a raita, with no embellishment other than a hint of salt.

And high in the mountains, as the burash (rhododendron) bursts into scarlet, the riotous petals enliven sparse hill-fare with a dash of colour and flavour. Piquant in taste they are not just munched raw, but ground into chutneys or boiled for sherbets. A favourite is pakoras. They also complement wonderfully the hot, sweet tea served alongside.

The plantain flower is another favourite. It covers a wider culinary domain for it tickles taste buds across continents. The tender pale inside, sheathed in the coarser, reddish outer petals, boiled to remove bitterness, is diced into salads, or cooked in curry-style dishes. It is delectable finely sliced and simmered in coconut milk.

Then there are the squash flowers. Batter fried, with or without a stuffing, they are a delicacy. And the blossoms, chopped along with the soft green tendrils and sautéed, served on ghee-smeared rotis, or with plain boiled rice, give out a subtle flavour, as sensuous as the supple, lithesome plant itself.

Flowers have been used for centuries to lend that unique twist in taste and flavour.

The rose was a preferred flavouring in royal cuisines. The Mughals adorned their most exotic biryanis with crushed rose petals. Even earlier, rose sherbet was served during a feast in gold chalices.

Later, dried rose petals became intrinsic to the very ethnic thandai. Gulkand made by layering rose-petals in sugar and made more unusual by adding chandi-ka-varak (silver foil) remains a favourite preserve, enjoyed not just for its rich taste but also its cooling properties.

Essence of the kewda flower (screw pine) was used freely in many Indian preparations, both sweet and savoury. So too was zafran (saffron), which imparted both aroma and colour. Royal chefs made judicious use of these special flowers to create exquisitely exotic meals. In ancient India kadamba and jasmine flowers yielded strong distilled drinks and various other blossoms were added to many an indigenous liqueur for a distinctive aroma.

Elsewhere, rose and jasmine flavoured traditional Turkish delight, and orange-blossom water has been an essential ingredient in Spanish sweets since the 8th century. Wines seasoned with violets were savoured in ancient Rome and the vibrantly yellow marigold blossoms were used in England to rid the paleness from cheese, and add a tinge of cheer to broths and puddings.

Chartreuse, the classic liquor developed in France in the 17th century, boasts of carnation petals as one of its clandestine ingredients. Clover cordial was a favourite in the coastal American west. Edible species of chrysanthemums remain widely popular in Japan.

Preserved petals are used as garnish, while fresh ones are marinated in a rice wine, soy and apricot blend. Lotuses and lilies have been a part of Chinese cuisine for ages. Tiger Lily buds are enjoyed in stir-fries and soups, and the tender buds of the water hyacinth are relished in the Philippines. Edible flowers promise to tantalise taste buds and lend an exotic touch to everyday cuisine.

Add an extra dimension to a salad or omelette by tossing in a few nasturtium petals. Alternatively, shred and merge some in a just-ready risotto for an ingenious twist in flavour, or simply drop some into olive oil, toss and shake, and dunk into it crusted bread.

Sprinkle marigold petals on cottage cheese laden sandwiches, add to warm pasta, sprinkle on hot steamed rice or simply combine with vegetables tossed in butter.

Sauté bean blossoms, and if you can lay your hand on them, fry young dandelion buds and use as toppings on toast or crackers.

Fragrant flowers are great in desserts. Lavender does wonderfully on icing and cakes. Float it too on a festive punch or immerse in honey, sweet sauces, syrups and wines.

Add rose petals or a dash of rose water to kulfis and ice creams, and a light syrup of tulsi (holy basil) flowers to a chilled fruit salad.

Prepare aromatic vinegars and oils from the flowers of any of the commonly used herbs; season dips and soups with them. Try out too, albeit in small quantities, the blooms of any citrus fruit for just that hint of fragrance.

Finally, discover your favourite blends for teas and tisanes, those great refreshers.

Remember:

* not all flowers are edible

* even among those edible, only certain varieties can be used in food

* mostly petals are used; so discard other parts

* never use flowers from a florist; they're sprayed with artificial perfumes and other preservative chemicals

* guard against discoloured flowers or those infested with insects

* wash thoroughly and shake dry before use

* don't cook or store flowers in metallic containers.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 25, 2005)
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