Rich in fibre and vitamin C, crunchy* and oh so pretty in cross section, it’s a pity lotus root isn’t better understood outside of China**. Actually, come to think of it, it’s a pity China isn’t better understood outside of China. The People’s Republic has a bit of a perception problem- impenetrable crowds, an impenetrable language, an impenetrable culture and impenetrably unbreathable chemical-laden air seem to be common gripes. Oh, and the weird food you get there (dumplings, noodles and steamed rice notwithstanding). Plus, the fact you can’t access Facebook. (Hasn’t anyone heard of a VPN?) Inscrutable. Mysterious. Not Freaking Easy. That’s mainly what folks seem to think. Chunky air aside (and to be fair, it’s not all polluted), China is everything we adore in a destination and we’re always curious when others don’t share our enthusiasm.
Recently we encountered a group of Aussies at Guangzhou airport, stranded by a connection stuff up. As were we and, with time to kill, we got chatty. Intrigued by where they’d been, what they’d eaten and what they thought of it all, we marvelled that complete strangers could survive two weeks on the road without throttling each other. We’re friends and we can’t manage that. They’d been to some wonderful, if predictable, places; Xi’an, Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. It’s the Warriors, Wall, Bears and Bund route, with all the sightseeing majors and none of the China-in-the-raw minors and for first timers, there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of them admitted to not having the confidence to tackle China independently, which is a shame, really.
But the food, we quizzed- how was that? We visualised all the regionally nuanced dishes they’d have eaten- such as fried, sweet stuffed persimmon cakes (called shizi bing) and lamby, soupy, noodley, bread-fortified pamao, in Xi’an. We could taste the sides of pickled garlic and smell the ambrosial smoke from chuanr (grilled cumin/chilli lamb skewers), that suffuses the city’s atmospheric Muslim Quarter. We could imagine the lush succulence of lurou huoshao (donkey meat sandwiches) and zha jiang mian (noodles with meat and sweet bean paste) in Beijing. And see them lapping up Peking duck at our beloved Li Qun (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, Dongcheng Qu), accessed through a maze of old hutongs that still survive south of Tiananmen. Beggars chicken, sticky dong po pork, crisp, fried, doughy shenjiang bao (pork buns) and sweet, meaty, fatty, juicy xiao long bao (soup dumplings)…who wouldn’t love the lardalicious flavours that define Shanghai? And lovely old Chengdu, with its ear cleaners, laid-back tea houses, snack repertoire, chilli-infused dan dan mian, chilli-smeared rabbit’s heads and bitter, cleansing, chilli-doused fish mint salads… if this isn’t the stuff of culinary revelation, bloody nothing is. Ah, yes, the regional cuisines that make up the glorious Chinese foodscape are diverse, exhilarating and like nothing else on earth.
And yet, “it was boring,” the tourettes flatly told us. “The food was monotonous. Everywhere we went we had the same things. It was dull.” Endless plates of fried rice, sweet and sour pork and the occasional vegetable-stuffed bun for breakfast had been their lot. Bland basics designed to soothe timid Western palates were arranged at every stop along the way and we were gutted on their behalf. They had absolutely no idea what they’d missed.
Take Suzhou, for example, home to world-famed classical Chinese gardens. Food there shares much with nearby Shanghai but it has a distinctive repertoire of its own too. Fish and seasonal aquatic plants - water caltrop, lotus root, water chestnuts - from nearby Taihu Lake, finessed dragon beard noodles in delicious soup (Suzhou cooks are ace stock makers), freshwater prawns cooked with local bilouchan green tea leaves and this dish (we know, you wondered when we were getting to the recipe), are just some you can expect. Slicked with a heavy syrup and smattered with fragrant osmanthus flower, it’s technically an appetiser, taking pride of place with savoury bites. But it’s also eaten as a snack with tea at places like the wonderful, canal side Pinvon Teahouse, in business for over 100 years. For the address, more about Suzhou dining and what to do on a day trip, see below.
*except when it’s not- as in this recipe. Where it’s long-cooked and soft.
**or Asia generally
800 g (1 lb 12 oz) lotus root (about two links)
250 g (9 oz /1¼ cups) glutinous rice, rinsed and drained
575 g (1 lb 4 oz /2 ½ cups) caster (superfine) sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon cornflour
dried osmanthus flowers (optional), to serve
Peel the lotus roots and cut a 3 cm (1¼ inch) piece from one end of each ling, reserving the cut ends.
Divide the soaked, drained rice among the two links, using a skewer to push the rice into the cavities in each link. (Each cavity should be 75%-80% full of rice only as there needs to be room for the rice to expand as it cooks). You may not need all the rice, it depends on the size of the holes
Replace the reserved ends on each link, securing them well with toothpicks. Place the stuffed lotus roots in a steamer, place over a wok or large pan of boiling water then cover tightly and steam for 3 hours, adding more water to the wok as necessary. Remove the lotus roots and set aside.
Combine 500 ml (17 fl oz /2 cups) water and 460 g (1 lb /2 cups) of the sugar in a saucepan large enough to hold the lotus roots snugly and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Add the roots and cook, turning occasionally, for 1 hour. Cool in the syrup.
Meanwhile, combine the remaining sugar, honey and 250 ml (8 ½ fl oz/ 1 cup) water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Combine the cornflour with 3 teaspoons of water in a small bowl and stir to form a smooth paste. Add paste into the simmering syrup, stirring constantly until well combined and the mixture has thickened slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and cool.
To serve, remove the toothpicks and trim and discard the ends from the lotus root links to neaten them. Using a sharp knife, cut the roots into 1 cm (½ inch) thick slices and arrange them neatly on a serving plate. Drizzle with the honey syrup, scatter over the osmanthus flowers, if using, and serve.
To find more info about Rice Stuffed Lotus Root, and where to eat the best version in Shanghai, click the link below...
“Award-Winning Finalist in the “Travel: Guides & Essays” category of the 2017 International Book Awards”
Shanghai is exhilarating, dynamic and endlessly fascinating. But, when hunger strikes, where to start in a city with so much on its menu? Beautifully designed, sumptuously photographed and chock-a-block with invaluable dining information, Shanghai In 12 Dishes helps you cut to the chase, culinarily speaking. Continued below...