Lotus root doesn’t really taste of much; apart from fibre and vitamin C, it’s nutritionally unremarkable too. Instead its selling points are in its crisp texture and unique appearance.
Lotus root is the underwater stem of the lotus plant and its lacy interior is formed by air pockets that keep the plant afloat. While other parts of the plant are edible, such as the seeds, the “root” is the most versatile and most widely available. The vegetable is mostly associated with Chinese cooking but is also eaten across East and South East Asia, and to a lesser extent in the Indian subcontinent. The lotus plant has some religious significance in Hinduism and Buddhism so lotus root is often a part of more celebratory meals, especially as its season coincides with the Lunar New Year.
Although it can be eaten raw, lotus root is typically cooked before being added to a dish — it discolours quickly once cut and releases a slightly sticky sap, but a brief spell in boiling water will solve the problem. The fresh roots are in season during the Winter and early Spring, but pre-sliced and cooked roots are available in packs or jars year round in Chinese supermarkets or online, which are much more convenient to use.
Once blanched, the crisp texture, perhaps a little similar to water chestnut, of the lotus root is best displayed in cold dishes or as a garnish — salads, simply dressed as a vegetable side dish or as a finishing touch to a noodle soup. It can also be braised or stewed, soaking up flavours as well as holding its unique shape, and could be used in place of mooli in many such dishes for a visual point of difference. In Japan, it is common in vegetable tempura, deep-frying in a light batter as popularised by vegetarian Buddhist monks. To round off its versatility, sweet preparations of lotus root are also popular, where the slices are candied by simmering in honey or a sugar syrup and coating in sugar: this traditional Asian sweet is served to accompany green tea in Japan and Korea.
Lotus root might not be a nutritional powerhouse or “superfood”, nor is it packed with flavour like other root vegetables, but it can add a great visual component to many dishes or a crisp texture to salads for something a little different. I’d definitely recommend trying it out if you see it.