Flower power

Flower power

Edible flowers can add a new dimension to your dishes

One of my fondest food memories as a child was sneaking into the kitchen for a spoonful of homemade gulkand during summers. I would soon be caught in the act and forced to guzzle down a glass of milk. But I still remember the burst of the fragrant sweetness of roses that lingered on my tongue long after. Growing up, flowers were a major part of meals whether it was a glass of chilled rose milk, my paati’s crunchy vazhaipoo vadai (banana flower fritters) or sour, bitter vepampoo rasam (neem flower rasam), which could kill stomach bugs. But my real fascination with edible flowers began when I saw Mr PK Dubey snacking on marigolds in the film Monsoon Wedding. Then I chanced upon fried cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms while binge-watching Masterchef Australia, and it was a revelation.

Flowers have long been a part of Indian cuisine, but they have recently caught the fancy of chefs around the world, who use these beautiful, delicate ingredients to enhance the presentation, flavour and texture of their dishes. From roses, violas, marigolds to elderflowers, dandelions and chrysanthemums, flowers can elevate the visual appeal of a drab-looking dish.

Aamras garnished with rose petals
Reetu Uday Kugaji's aamras garnished
with dried rose petals.

Traditionally speaking...

Flowers were consumed in one form or another in Roman, Egyptian and Asian civilisations. They were cultivated as herbs or aromatics. Bitter herbs also find mention in the Bible. Coriander, mint, dandelions and lettuce have been traditionally used in salads and stews for ages. Flowers have also been used to make intoxicating beverages like wine made out of chrysanthemums, and our very own mahua flowers, which are used to brew country liquor. 

Food-growing communities in India use flowers in their everyday cooking depending on the season. “In Dehradun, we have a kitchen garden and when flowers are in season, they get used in the food. For example, kaddu ke phool (pumpkin flowers) are used a lot in Garhwali and Bengali cuisines. They have a soft, velvety texture and are stuffed or fried into pakodas,” says Rushina Munshaw Gidiyal, food blogger and consultant. Similarly, flowers that are indigenous to the region like kachnar and rhododendron are used to make stir-fries, pickles and sherbets. Moringa, tamarind, mustard and onion flowers also feature widely in traditional cooking.

Chef, mentor, food blogger, author and food consultant Reetu Uday Kugaji cites that edible flowers not only enhance the appearance and flavour but also add to the nutritive value of a dish. “For example, rose petals aid weight loss, relieve stress and depression and are natural aphrodisiacs. Some flowers contain phytonutrients, flavonoids and antioxidants, all of which can lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. Roses and lavender contain vitamins A, C and E. Drumstick flowers are aphrodisiacs and can keep your eyes in good health. Jasmine and hibiscus are used in teas for their soothing, calming properties,” she says.

Pooja Dhingra's cookies with dried and pressed flowers.

Gourmet greatness

Cut to the high-end gourmet kitchens. Chefs across the world have been experimenting with florals to infuse soft flavours and to add a dash of colour on the plate. Dishes that are painstakingly garnished with delicate microgreens and flowers look stunning. Chef Prateek Sadhu of Masque in Mumbai loves pairing edible flowers with seafood — mussels, clams, oysters or fish. “At Masque, we’ve done a variety of seafood dishes with nasturtium and marigolds — barramundi, lobster on fennel toast; with chicken and morels. We’ve also used flowers as a salad base with different leaves. Flowers need to complement the dish. For example, when we use nasturtium with fish, its pungency works well with seafood and adds to the flavour profile of the overall dish,” he explains.

While most chefs use flowers in gourmet cooking to build on the aesthetics of a dish, it is important to know why the flower belongs on a plate. “If a chef is using edible flowers just for the look of it, then it is a waste. Each flower has an aroma, a flavour and a purpose. Almost every flower has a fruit with it, or a honey made by its nectar, and a root which can be used as well,” explains Vanshika Bhatia, freelancer and director/head chef of Sauce Spirits Hospitality. This philosophy is translated in Vanshika’s creations like a hibiscus-lemon puree with a moist date cake, lavender-marinated chicken, apple blossom used as a seasoning in a fish tartare and drumstick flowers cooked with fenugreek leaves and yoghurt.

For Ishika Konar, executive chef at Atmantan Wellness Centre, flowers are a source of wellness in food. Which is why she gives her dishes a floral touch keeping in mind their health quotient. “We grow different varieties of basil plants and use the flowers in our recipes. They have a milder flavour than the leaves and are loaded with antioxidants and flavonoids. Fennel flowers have the same subtle spiciness as the seeds. They are high in plant compounds and antioxidants and we often use them in our salads.”

Desserts with floral undertones always surprise the palate and lend a natural aroma and sweetness. Chef Pooja Dhingra of Le 15 is known to harness the goodness of flowers and has been using them in her sweet delights for years now. Speaking about her favourite combinations, Pooja says, “Rose pairs well with vanilla, coconut, ginger, dark or milk chocolate, while lavender works with dark chocolate, Earl Grey; orange blossoms and dark chocolate; hibiscus and lemon are classics.”

While most chefs source these pretty little things from local growers, some online gourmet stores have also started supplying them in dried and powdered forms. “Source flowers from an organic farm or grow them yourself if you have space. It’s also important to store them in low temperatures and use them soon after they are bought, as they tend to wilt quickly,” says Pooja. A hint of floral dust or bright petals can instantly upgrade the plating of any dish.

But these lovely ingredients come with their own set of instructions. Ensure that you have a thorough knowledge of the flower you are using and what role it is supposed to play on the plate. So what are you waiting for? Get a floral fix right now!

Dos and don’ts  

  • Ensure that the flowers are organically grown and are bought from a reputed and known source.
  • Be cautious of allergic reactions to pollen etc.
  • Don’t consume flowers without concrete knowledge about them.
  • Keep the dishes and methods of cooking edible flowers simple, as they have delicate flavours which might get lost in the cooking process. They are best suited for salads and cold dishes. 
  • Many flowers are poisonous, so be VERY cautious. For example, while using the Japanese honeysuckle, you need to discard the berries of the flower as they are poisonous.

 (Courtesy: Chef Reetu Uday Kugaji)