In Yunnan province, flowers are valued for their taste as well as beauty
Lichun (立春, “start of spring”), the first of the 24 solar terms in the lunar calendar, officially ushered in the spring season on March 20 this year, and with it the promise of colorful blossoms decorating tree branches all over China.
In the southwestern Yunnan province, however, spring is a feast for the tongue as much as it is for the eyes. As a local folk saying goes, “flowers are vegetables (鲜花当蔬菜).”
The history of flower eating in China dates back to at least the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), when poet Qu Yuan (屈原) wrote in “The Lament (《离骚》)”: “Drink dew drops from magnolia in the morning, and have fallen chrysanthemums for dinner.”
Anecdotes of the Sui and Tang Dynasties (《隋唐嘉话》), a historical novel by Tang scholar Liu Su (刘餗), recorded an ancient Festival of Flowers (花朝节) on the fifteenth day of the second lunar month, featuring worship of flower goddesses, flower appreciation, and poetry readings. During the festival, Tang Emperor Wu Zetian would undertake a “flower viewing” tour in the imperial garden, and order maids to make “hundred-flower cakes (百花糕),” a dessert made by mashing all kinds of flowers and steaming them with glutinous rice, which she then gifted to officials.
A line commonly attributed to Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) scholar and gourmet Yuan Mei (袁枚) mapped out the best flowers for consumption in each season, “yulan magnolia in spring, lotus in summer, chrysanthemum in autumn, and winter sweet in winter.”
Though it’s unclear how Yunnan’s appetite for the floral came about, the practice of eating flowers is probably linked to the province’s “year-round spring-like clime (四季如春)” and diversity of flora. Nicknamed “the kingdom of flowers (鲜花王国),” Yunnan boasts over 700 kinds of edible flowers, according to a 2013 local government report from Kunming, the provincial capital. In addition to the taste, many flowers are also consumed for their medicinal value.
Here are some of the most popular flowers dishes in Yunnan:
For people outside of Yunnan, rose may be the province’s best-known consumable flower, thanks to the popularity of its specialty dessert “flower cake (鲜花饼),” a flaky pastry with rose fillings, available year round. According to the 2013 Kunming government report, an average of 200,000 flower cakes were sold in Kunming each day that year, 60 percent of which were sent out of the province.
Pumpkin flower (南瓜花)
There are dozens of ways to enjoy pumpkin flowers, though they are best consumed in June and July. In addition to being stir-fried with other ingredients like pork or ham, they are also commonly cooked into an omelet or rice porridge, deep-fried, or stuffed with meat then braised or steamed in a process called niang. In all cases, the hard skin of the stalk is removed, and the flower soaked in salty water for about 10 minutes to remove bitterness before cooking.
A pumpkin flower omelet with a touch of chili sauce or salt and pepper is a mouthwatering prospect. The cook coats the flowers with beaten egg before pan-frying, so they remain fresh and tender. In comparison, deep-fried pumpkin flowers coated with a thin flour batter are crispy.
Flower of Japanese banana (芭蕉花)
These flowers are mainly consumed among the Dai ethnic group in Xishuangbanna and some other warmer parts of Yunnan. In general, the blooming period of Japanese banana trees begins in July and August and lasts for five to six months, but some wild species bloom throughout the year. Popular cooking methods for this flower include stir frying and baoshao (包烧, literally “wrap and grill”), a special Dai culinary technique.
To get rid of the original bitterness of the flowers, the pale yellow and tender core, the edible part of the flower, is often sliced and then blanched in boiled water, or rubbed with some salt and then washed.
In a baoshao dish, the flower slices are mixed with minced pork, beaten egg, minced garlic, chopped green onion, coriander, and salt, wrapped up with a leaf of Japanese banana, and then grilled.
Birchleaf pear flower (棠梨花)
For Yunnan residents, a sure sign spring has arrived is when the buds of birchleaf pear flowers appear in markets, waiting to be turned into salads, soups, or stir-fried together with broad beans, garlic sprouts, eggs, and hams. To enjoy the refreshing and delicate flavor, cooks first blanch the buds in boiled water for a few minutes, wash them a few times, and then soak them in water for at least 12 hours to get rid of their astringent taste before cooking.
Some believe the flowers have the same medical properties as the birchleaf pear, which Qing dynasty physician Huang Yuanyu (黄元御) listed as “contracting the intestines and lung, eliminating diarrhea and vomiting” in his pharmaceutical text Yuqiu’s Explanation of Herbs (《玉楸药解》).
Broom flower (金雀花)
Broom flowers normally blossom in March and April and are commonly fried with eggs. Unlike the birchleaf pear flowers, broom flowers are not bitter, but fresh and sweet. They are said to nourish the spleen and treat symptoms like night sweat and insomnia caused by what traditional Chinese medicine believes to be a yin deficiency, associated with insufficient body fluids such as blood and saliva.
Taro flower (芋头花)
Compared with other flowers, taro flowers are more of a nuisance to prepare. The sticky sap from the flowers can cause itching, swelling, or even poisoning on skin contact, so gloves are a must when removing their stamen and pistil. The flowers require a few good washings, preferably with hot water, to get rid of the calcium oxalates, the toxin that makes the sap irritating, before cooking. A good stir-fried taro flower dish often includes eggplants and chili sauce.
Pomegranate flower (石榴花)
Pomegranate flowers blossom in May and June, but it’s the green sepal at the outer base of the flower, rather than the petals or stamen, that makes for a tasty snack. The flowers are first blanched in boiled water and then soaked in cold water to remove bitterness, then stir-fired with ham or larou (cured pork meat), until the flowers are crispy.