Flowers aren’t just for looking at, discovers Brian Iloti Mutoka as he explores the world of beautiful edible blossoms
The last few years have seen a growing interest in foods that may not be considered mainstream. This may have been driven by food shortage crises all over the world and the search for alternative sources of nutrition for a shrinking planet and its growing population. It may also be because people have gotten bored of the same old colours on their plates and want to liven things up a bit with vibrant and colourful ingredients.
Lately, the trend of using edible flowers like roses, chrysanthemums and lilac as garnish in meals, desserts and salads has began to enter the culinary mainstream. When the right petals and buds are used, it can add a welcome touch of the unexpected to any meal.
According to Steve Dongla, a chef who runs a catering business in the city and has worked in hotels like Eka Hotel, the use of edible flowers is increasing.
“There has been an increase in requests for recipes that involve using edible flowers,” he points out. “This has in turn led those of us in the Kenyan industry to take a closer look at the cultures where flowers are commonly used as ingredients, like Indian cuisine.”
Indian cuisine is however not unique in this. Since ancient times, the Romans and Chinese have incorporated flowers in their recipes. The medical benefits of flower petals include great antioxidant properties as well as essential oils. The trick to adding flowers to your meals lies in knowing what various flavours different flowers contain. Flowers like borages and roses are surprisingly versatile and can be used as spices or garnish in desserts and salads. Others like dandelions and lilacs can be used to make teas and add a zing to some wines, vinegar, soups and pasta. Besides this, leaves of some flower plants like chrysanthemums can be used for the same purpose as well.
Dongla sounds a note of caution to anyone interested in using edible petals in their food: “It is best to use flowers that you have tended yourself, not least because some flowers are poisonous.” He goes on to add that when harvesting petals it is important to cut well above the point where the petals and stamen meet. This is because the stamen is usually bitter and can also cause gastric irritation, as well as trigger some allergies.The reason for using flowers you grow yourself is because most flowers are grown for the purpose of adornment and not cuisine. This means hazardous pesticides and other chemicals are used very liberally on such plants, something one should be careful to avoid.
“A lot of my clients are getting more interested in pushing boundaries and trying new things. I recommend something simple like a chicken salad with marigold petals and a good homemade dressing.” The marigold is a good example of a flower that can really elevate a meal, with its taste ranging from peppery to tangy, though only its petals are edible. Other flowers like oregano and basil flowers can be used for the same purposes.
While flowers make for excellent garnish for rice and pasta dishes, their appearance and flavours can make all the difference to your after meal sweets. Be it coronations steeped in wine and sprinkled over a good chocolate panna cotta, or the simple to make candied rose petals, flowers are definitely something to give a try. Expect this to be trial and error process, your palette will need time to identify what flowers go best with certain meals. If you get it right though, eyebrows will be raised- for all the right reasons.