Flowers aren’t just for vases anymore. These pretty things are landing up on elaborately plated meals in fancy restaurants. I spoke to renowned chefs on ways to bring some of that same decorative flair to your next dinner party.
It’s said that we “eat with our eyes”, and the current floral route adopted by restaurants on dishes, drinks and desserts, certainly feeds into that idea. Edible flowers aren’t a new idea, but they’re enjoying something of a resurgence right now. Flowers are appearing with increasing frequency on restaurant dishes. Big ticket restaurants are using petals to populate their plates – more often than not to stunning effect. And that’s not all. Even some low-key local restaurants are playing with blooms beyond the common rose and jasmine in their dishes.
Flowers look beautiful as garnishes but are they meant to be eaten? Yes, any flower you see on your plate in a restaurant can actually be consumed, say chefs. “Using edible flowers in cooking began many years ago when the Greek and Chinese used flowers to enhance the look and feel of their food. Traditional cooking by many cultures use edible flowers such as rose petals in Indian sweets, squash blossoms in European food and green tea buds in Chinese cooking are some classic examples,” explains Chef Jerson Fernandes, Executive Chef at Jeon at Hotel Sea Princess.
Why cook with edible flowers?
Why not? We eat many other parts of plants, so why not eat the flowers too? In fact we do eat flowers on a regular basis: broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes are all flowers, botanically speaking. Edible flowers add an entirely new dimension to salads, can turn a simple main course into an exotic still-life and will transform desserts from the familiar to the sublime.
According to chef Vicky Ratnani of The Corner House, edible flowers can also add unique flavours to dishes, from sweet, floral or citrus flavours, to slightly spicy, even bitter flavours. “Rose flower powder is extremely flavourful. Lavender flowers are used to make Lavender butter which is distinct in its taste and texture,” he adds.
Mating flowers with dishes
Though using beautiful flowers in your dish may earn you a disproportionate number of likes on Instagram, you clearly need to know how to use them in your dishes. So how do you decide which flowers go with which dish? It’s all about taste and colour say chefs. While there are around 46 species of flowers that are classified to be edible it is rose, marigold, hibiscus, jasmine, lavender, chamomile, basil, violets, nasturtium, pumpkin flower, etc that are commonly used in dishes in India. “The flower choices depend on the elements and the ingredients used in a particular dish. The idea is to let the flavours and colours marry each other well. For Eg: Rosemary flowers can be as a garnish on dishes that incorporate the rosemary herb. Lavender can be used in both sweet and spicy dishes as the flowers are spicy, sweet and fragrant,” confirms chef Fernandes. Rose petals are baked with icing sugar on them and paired with desserts.
Desi Culture a popular restaurant in Mumbai dips a fresh rose into a beaker of liquid nitrogen only to shatter the frozen flower over a plate of kulfi for a gastronomic wow!
While fresh cilantro flowers are added to chutneys for their distinct colour and flavour, the sweet and fragrant violets are often used as garnish for drinks, soups and desserts. Rose petal jams and gulkands are popular since time immemorial. Floral scented flowers pair well with milk based dishes but care must be taken to not overcook them since they can lose their colour and flavour, warns chef Ratnani. “I use lavender flowers to flavour tea and mogra to make a yummy mogra sharbat along with lemon juice and ginger. Hibiscus is used in cocktails and to colour sparkling wine. I also add marigold to the batter of kanda bhajiya (onion fritters) to make marigold and onion bhajiyas.”
Edible flowers that have a delicate flavour are commonly used in desserts and salads, as it is easy to discern the mild flavour of the flower on the palate. However, when used with starters or entrees, the delicate flavour tends to get overpowered by the presence of other spices and ingredients. “When edible flowers are used for the sole purpose of enhancing the visual appeal, the focus is more on creating a contrast of the colourful flowers with the dish. For instance, if my dish has red as a dominant colour, I garnish it with purple flowers, or if a dish is white then I prefer to use red or yellow flowers to add a pop of colour,” explains Chef Saurabh Udinia, Chef de Cuisine Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd (the company that owns Farzi Café, PaPaYa, Masala Library and others). The chain uses lavender in milk to make custard and kheer. Rose is used for flavouring one of their most popular desserts Ras Malai Tres Leches. Besides this, Farzi cafe also uses kokum flowers in savoury dishes, especially in the preparation of lamb chops.
The trend is not just restricted to restaurants but has percolated seamlessly to households too. Varsha Singhania grows over 40 varieties of edible flowers at Kamala Retreat an estate owned by the Singhania family in Kanpur. “Nothing dresses up a dish like garnishing it with blossoms. Whether it is a dish or a dessert – flowers are a creative and popular garnish for any occasion and can add an instant wow factor! They are also super healthy and a colourful, fun alternative to any artificial colours, sweeteners or preservatives that may usually be used in certain foods,” she adds. Singhania extensively uses nasturtium, pansy, marigold and pomelo flowers in salads. Jasmine is used to make a fragrant and flavourful jasmine rice, pumpkin flowers are stuffed with feta cheese and orchids marry papaya salads at the Singhania household. The flowers are plucked early in the morning and put in water to keep them from wilting. She however warns against using flowers bought from the market as they are heavily sprayed with pesticides. “Use them in your cooking only if you grow them in your home or in your backyard,” she adds.
Heal with flowers
Is there more to edible flowers than good looks and flavour? Yes say experts. While flowers can’t replace the medicine cabinet, it can complement it in many ways. Chives, nasturtiums, marigolds or roses are just some of the edible flowers that boost your vitamin C. The bright colours show that edible flowers are rich in phytonutrients, flavonoids and antioxidants, which are recommended ways to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Hibiscus is high in antioxidants which help prevent cholesterol deposits. “We use hibiscus extensively in herbal shampoos for hair growth and strengthening. You could even boil it in water and drink it. Ixora the star shaped flowers with a bitter taste is very effective in treating skin ailments in babies. Periwinkle or Nithya Kalyani flowers contains more than 70 alkaloids, and is known to cut the risk of cancer and lower blood pressure,” explains Ashida Hussain an Ayurvedic doctor with Kairali Ayurvedic Healing Village in Palakad, Kerala. The flowers of various herbs, such as lavender, thyme, rosemary and mint, all share the healing properties of their leaf parts, being good for the digestion and soothing to the stomach.
Things to remember
Not every flower is edible. In fact, some flowers can be poisonous. Do sufficient research to ensure your safety.
Eat only the petals, not the stamens or filaments.
If you are prone to allergies, eat a little at first and watch out for any irritation.
Freeze whole small flowers into ice rings or cubes for a pretty addition to punches and other beverages.
Use flowers to flavour oils, vinaigrettes, jellies and marmalades.
To keep flowers fresh, place them on moist paper towels and refrigerate in an airtight container. Some will last up to 10 days this way. Ice water can revitalize limp flowers.