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Edible Flowers and Use in Cooking

Nasturtiums Image: Vilor|

Nasturtiums Image: Vilor|

How many of us think of broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes as the flower they actually are, rather than as vegetables? Flowers are usually associated with food as decorative effects on the dining table rather than as part of the edibles served thereon.

In medieval times, flowers such as violets, nasturtiums, borage and chive flowers, calendula and rose petals were commonly used to enliven a salad. This practice appears to have been popular up to at least the 18th century. John Evelyn in Acetaria (1699) recommended picking flowers such as cloves, gillyflowers, elder, orange cowslip, rosemary and sage, for salads. The floral salad has seen a revival in recent years. Specialist greengrocers now stock little cartons of edible salad flower, usually nasturtiums, pansies and, occasionally, chive flowers. They are best added to the salad at the last minute.

The glorious rose is more than just a pretty face. Luxuriously scented syrups, jams and iced confections can be made from its petals. Old-fashioned and David Austin roses are best as they are more strongly scented than the modern hybrids, with red and pink varieties being the preferred colours. You will need around 250g petals to make up 500g jam. Life would be a bed of roses if one had scones with clotted cream and rose petal jam made from that grand old Bourbon rose, 'Souvenir de la Malmaison'!

Crystallised Violets - a labour of love. Image:  Lilyana Vynogradova|

Crystallised Violets - a labour of love. Image: Lilyana Vynogradova|

Crystallised Flowers: Decorative Edibles

Crystallised flowers make stunning decorations on cakes and confectionery. A wide range of flowers can be treated in this manner but crystallised violets are the ones commercially available and then only in specialist stores. They are expensive but the cost reflects the painstaking labour involved. Each petal is dipped in beaten eggwhite, coated with caster sugar and then dried at low temperatures.

Lindsey R. Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts and Lesley Bermness' The Complete Book of Herbs contain inspiring recipes for floral sweet treats.

Zucchini Flowers Image:  Ginaluca Figliola Fantini|

Zucchini Flowers Image: Ginaluca Figliola Fantini|

Zucchini (Courgette) Flowers

The zucchini (courgette) plant produces both male and female flowers. The former are considered a delicacy in Italy and can be found in bunches at the markets during the summer. They are usually made into fritters, coated in a light batter. Beer batter or tempura batter is perfect.

There is no law against cooking the female flowers, which have the immature fruit attached. Picking zucchini flowers is a great way to preclude having an overload of zucchini later in the season. The female flowers should be picked when the fruit is about 4 cm long. Don't leave it too much longer as the flower shrinks as the zucchini develops.

Zucchini flowers can also be stuffed with various kinds of fillings such as cheese (soft mild cheeses like taleggio are best) and even a farce of prawns. However, for stuffed flowers, it's best if you have home-grown plants to pick from. The flower starts to close up as soon as they are picked, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stuff them. Dip them in a light batter and deep fry as soon as possible after stuffing them. The petals will fall off if they are left sitting around for too long with damp fillings.

Cloves Image:  David Dohnal|

Cloves Image: David Dohnal|

Cloves: for decorative effect & flavour

Another flower that shines in the kitchen is the clove, the unopened aromatic flower-bud of a tree of the myrtle family native to the Spice Islands (now the Moluccas). These were popular in medieval Europe where they were used in sweet and savoury dishes. Their shape enables them to fulfill the dual functions of decorative effect and flavouring agent, as in clove-studded ham.

Butterfly Pea flower  Lucy Baldwin|

Butterfly Pea flower Lucy Baldwin|

Butterfly Pea: natural food colour

While blue is not a colour usually associated with food, this is the very shade of some prized South-East Asian delicacies such as the Thai cso muang, a savoury dumpling of pork encased in a blue-tinted dough; and pulut inti, a Malaysian sweet glutinous rice cake that is eaten with kaya (coconut and egg jam).

The vibrant stain is extracted from the deep blue bunga telang or Butterfly pea flower (Clitoria ternatea), which grows in tropical and subtropical climates.

Torch Ginger or Bunga Kantan (in Malay) Image:  wongweiyee|

Torch Ginger or Bunga Kantan (in Malay) Image: wongweiyee|

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Torch Ginger: Essential Penang Nonya ingredient

The pink bud of the ginger plant, often called torch ginger or bunga kantan in Malay, is essential for certain South-East Asian dishes. Its very distinctive, aromatic fragrance is like that of spicy Vietnamese mint but with a floral note. Used finely shredded, it has a particular affinity with fish. It is an essential ingredient in many of Nonya (Straits Settlement Chinese) dishes, particularly those of regional Penang Nonya cuisine.

The island of Penang off the northeast coast of Malaysia is renowned for its distinctive regional cuisine, particularly its street food. Visitors to Penang are often there on a food pilgrimage as much as exploring and enjoying the sights of Georgetown which is now a UNESCO Heritage city.

Some regional specialities where this flower features is in the tangy tamarind-sour fishy Penang assam laksa and Siamese laksa (nobody says Thai laksa !). The various Nonya 'salads' termed kerabu would be incomplete without it.


One of the most famous dishes of Penang is Gulai Tumis, a spicy sour fish curry that is redolent with the savoury fragrance of the bunga kantan. This flower is at the heart and soul of this dish: it cannot be left out or substituted.

Frozen bunga kantan is available in some Asian food stores. The labelling can be appalling - my last lot had "dried anchovies" marked on the plastic bags. If your storekeeper doesn't understand the Malay name, try asking for it by its Cantonese name - wong keong far. Or just show him/her the picture on this page.

To achieve the authentic flavour of the dish, you also need to use Asian shallots. Brown or red onions don't deliver the same fragrance. At a push, you can substitute French shallots.

The highly prized firm white fleshed pomfret is the fish traditionally used for this dish. The whole pomfret is usually cut in half or thirds depending on the size and left ON the bone. You can use frozen pomfret (check the quality of the frozen fish; don't buy it if it is caked in ice crystals). In Melbourne, I use fresh John Dory, flounder or Lemon Sole as a substitute.

Do not use turmeric or galangal powder. It has to be either the fresh or frozen form.

This is such a glorious dish it's worth the effort to track down the ingredients for them. Once you've tried it, you'll want to keep eating it. I recommend making triple or quadruple the amount of the spice paste. Freezing the paste in small batches and you'll be able to have this wonderful Penang classic at a drop of the hat!


Serves 4 - 6

60 g tamarind pulp
625 ml water
1 fresh or 2 frozen bunga kantan
3 - 4 tbsp oil
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
2 - 3 John Dory or similar, halved at a diagonal width-wise

Spice paste
120 g Asian red shallots, peeled and sliced
10 g fresh red chillies, deseeded and sliced
5 dried chillies, soaked in hot water and deseeded
2 stalks lemon grass, finely sliced
2.5 cm fresh or frozen galangal
2 cm fresh or frozen turmeric, finely grated
0.25 cm slice blachan (dried shrimp paste)

Mix tamarind pulp with 125 ml of the water. Using your hands, squeeze out extract into a bowl and discard the seeds and fibres.

If you are lucky enough to have fresh bunga kantan, all you need to is finely shred the whole bud.

If you are using the frozen form: Cut off and discard the stem of the frozen flower (ie do this while it is still frozen). The bud's centre suffers severe browning in the freezing process. Instead of just finely shredding the whole bud as you would with the fresh, peel the outer petals off and finely chop them. Then shave the smaller petals from around the centre, avoiding the browned centre. Set aside.

In a food processor, grind spice paste ingredients to a smooth paste.

Heat oil in a large heavy casserole set over moderate heat. Gently fry the spice paste until it is soft and fragrant (about 10 minutes). Mix in shredded bunga kantan and fry for a few minutes. [NOTE: If you are intending to freeze the paste, this is the point at which you stop the cooking process.]

Add tamarind extract, the rest of the water, sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir well, bring to the boil and leave to simmer for about an hour. Check for sourness. If necessary, add a bit more tamarind extract. Adjust salt and sugar to taste. (I like to leave the sauce overnight to allow the flavours to mature.)

Just before serving, bring the sauce to the boil and add the fish. Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the fish is cooked.

Serve hot with steamed rice.

Asian Shallots. Image:  Chubbster|

Asian Shallots. Image: Chubbster|

Pomfret: THE fish for Gulai Tumis Image:  discpicture|

Pomfret: THE fish for Gulai Tumis Image: discpicture|


Foodstuff (author) from Australia on January 08, 2011:

Thanks, mquee. Do try and track the ingredients down and when you do, bulk up and make a big amount of the paste. That's what I do!

mquee from Columbia, SC on January 08, 2011:

Very well written and informative hub. It is interesting and enlightening throughout. I intend to try that recipe if I can track down all the ingredients. Thanks for sharing.

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