WHAT IS LOTUS ROOT?
Lotus root is a rhizome of the lotus plant (蓮藕/莲藕 in Chinese; 蓮根/れんこん or renkon in Japanese). According to Diane Morgan’s Roots (2012), this aquatic plant is native to Asia, the Middle East, and Australia and has been cultivated for over 2000 years. Being a rhizome, lotus root grows horizontally in the mud of flooded fields or ponds. When you dig them up from the mud, the roots resemble sausage links, with 3 to 6 bulbous sections connected together. They have a starchy and crispy texture, and they’re rich in fiber and potassium.
SYMBOLISM OF THE LOTUS PLANT
Lotus root is a part of the lotus plant, which carries a lot of significance in Buddhist culture. As Pamela Chia explains in her cookbook, Wet Market to Table (2019): “The lotus is revered because of its ability to rise from mud and bloom into flower beautifully, symbolising the process of attaining enlightenment.”
HOW TO PICK & STORE LOTUS ROOT
The roots are generally imported from Asia (often China or Japan). You can usually find lotus root in Asian grocery stores, especially ones that sell Chinese food.
When picking lotus root, look for roots with light pink/tan skin that are free from major blemishes. If the skin looks completely brown (like you see in the cover photo here), it’s a sign that the root is way past its prime. However, small patches of brown are okay, like the one you see in the photo above.
Generally, farms will rinse the vegetable before shipping. If you see mud around the exterior, don’t be alarmed. Just rinse the roots thoroughly before cooking with it.
I typically place lotus root in plastic bags and then refrigerate them. They can keep for up to 2 weeks.
HOW TO PREPARE LOTUS ROOT
Rinse the exterior. If several segments are still intact, snap them at the joint. Then, slice off the joints at the ends; they’re quite tough and difficult to eat. Use a vegetable peeler (affiliate link) to peel off the skin. If the root is starting to go bad and turning brown, slice off those browning parts.
When you cut the root, it exposes a stringy sap that vaguely resembles the silk of spiderwebs. I think the sap is fun to eat but might feel weird for some people. I recommend slicing the root crosswise into thin slices, to expose the lacy pattern inside. When you slice lotus root thinly, they’re easier to cook. Moreover, you won’t be able to detect the stringy sap.
However, if you want to make lotus root soup, you’ll probably want to cut the root into 1 ½ to 2-inch slices and then quarter each slice to get smaller chunks.
Lotus root oxidizes very quickly once you slice it. To keep the root from browning too quickly, soak the roots in a bowl of water with a good squeeze of lemon juice. Alternatively, my mom says soaking the root in salt water works too. You can also wash away some of the starches during the soaking process.
HOW TO EAT LOTUS PLANT & ROOTS
In Chinese cuisine, people use nearly all parts of the lotus plant for cooking. The seeds can be used for making soups or turned into a sweet paste (蓮蓉). Lotus seed paste is often used to fill mooncakes or steamed buns (蓮蓉包). Lotus leaves can be dried and used as wrapping for the classic dim sum dish 糯米雞 (aka no mai gai or lo mai gai), sticky rice wrapped in leaves. Even the tender stems can be peeled and stir fried. However, the most commonly eaten portion of the lotus plant is the roots.
My favorite way of cooking lotus root is to stir fry it with other vegetables. In the stir fry above, I sautéed onions in oil for a minute or so. Then, I added green beans, lotus root, and rehydrated wood ear (木耳, also known as “wood ear mushrooms). Sauté them for a minute. Then, drizzle several tablespoons of water into the wok, cover with a lid, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. The water generates steam to cook the vegetables and keeps the vegetables from burning. Uncover the wok and cook for another minute. Season with salt and oyster sauce (or your favorite stir fry sauce). When you cook lotus root this way, the vegetable will retain a light crisp (not dissimilar to sautéing thinly sliced potatoes for a few minutes).
I also like to fry sliced lotus root in oil to make chips. After you slice the root thinly, soak it in salted water for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and dry the slices well with towels. Heat some oil in a wok or saucepan to 375ºF (190ºC). Add the lotus root slices in batches and fry until golden. Remove from oil and continue frying the remaining slices. Season the fried roots with salt and your favorite dry seasonings. The chips have a beautiful earthy flavor.