Earlier this year, Chef Manish Mehrotra, Culinary Director, Indian Accent, created a flower menu as a tribute to the annual London-based RHS Chelsea Flower Show. While the dishes followed the spring theme, the real stars were Indian flowers in the constructions: marigold, dil and the versatile rose. Which perhaps explains why the Mughals were fascinated by the use of rose water and jasmine water which were added to all their meals and even bodies in summer. The thought behind the Indian Accent flower menu, elaborates Chef Shantanu Mehrotra, the Executive Chef of the restaurant, “is to showcase flowers”— fragrant gastronomic ingredients that are not merely quirky elements in the preparation but are main flavourants in dishes such as Rice Kheer, in which the rose petal murabba is the highlight. The tender petals of marigold give effective contrast to the meaty guchchi in the Marigold-Kashmiri Morel dish.
Edible flowers have been around in global cuisine and beverages for centuries.
“In spite of their delicate texture and seasonality, flowers have aroma, texture and a mild vegetable undertaste, especially banana blossom, vegetable hummingbird and the flower of pumpkin, zucchini, moringa and onion. Each one has a unique flavour,” explains Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Culinary Director, Byg Brewski.
Kolkata chef Sharad Dewan of The Park feels that sturdy varieties like banana blossoms (mocha) have the versatility of potatoes. “They can be used to make puffs, cutlets, salads and even in Mochar Ghonto since they can hold their own with spices.” Concurs Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sriracha, who thinks that the biggest virtue of edible flowers is that they take on subtle flavours really well. Example: Chef Seth’s Beer-battered Zucchini blossoms with jackfruit salsa.
“The fact that zucchini has a subtle vegetable flavour allows me to be more creative with my batter and sauces. The delicate taste allows the palate to decipher the little nuances of a good batter or sauce and makes for an amazing bite.” In fact, one of his favourite concoctions is made by marinating flowers to create a flavour-packed salad such as the banana-flower sriracha noodle salad, ceviche style. For Chef Dewan, working with flowers, especially of banana and onion, is about loading a dish with a variety of flavours. “Flowers are amazing ingredients which infuses both aroma and flavours in a preparation. Banana and onion flowers have a sweet, meaty flavour which can alone help crank up a dish. Like the onion flower in French Onion soup or Chives flower in an oriental hot pot,” he says.
The slow discovery of the distinct characteristics of each bloom has helped many culinary minds like Chef Mir Zafar Ali, Executive Chef, The Leela Bengaluru, to include them in desserts. Take the case of hibiscus, says Chef Ali.
“The fact that it adds both colour and aroma to a dish makes it a wonderful addition to panna cotta or a shorbet. The slight tangy notes give great texture and add taste to a rich, sweet dish,” he feels. The pastry wizard pairs Butter Pea Flower Tea and tea cakes to create delicious juxtaposition. “Using them in slightly dehydrated form in the dessert accentuates the taste,” says Ali.
Agrees Chef Gorai, who extensively uses flowers in his preparations in seasons “when they are tender and right.” He seconds flower infusion has culinary merit. “I have used floral infused water to cook rice and the esults have been stellar since they give the dish a distinct but subtle aroma that gives a delicious hit at the back of the throat.”
The variety of edible flowers is vast to cook, or just simply to nibble on. Radish flowers, arugula flowers, coriander flowers, basil flowers, sage flowers, chive flowers, borage, and squash blossoms are preferred garden snacks. Some like chamomile, chicory, lavender, impatiens, lilacs, roses, linden and scented geraniums have more exotic uses. Flowers are blooming in both gardes and kitchens. And how good they smell indeed!