Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The flower (and algae) eaters*


Australians aren’t particularly adventurous when it comes to food. We rarely try bush tucker, and most of us haven’t been here long enough to learn by trial and error what is good to eat.

As I mentioned in my last posting (also one from the radio archives), Aboriginal communities have had plenty of time to test the Australian flora. There are also lots of edible plants in our gardens, and not always in the vegetable patch.

We tend to use flowers as a garnish, or maybe occasionally fry up a zucchini bloom, but flowers can form the mainstay of dishes in many Asian countries. I’ve eaten stir-fried Crocus and Rhododendron flowers (from edible species) in the Yunnan Province of southern China, and my colleague Phil Petit has enjoyed similarly prepared flowers of Cape Jasmine (Gardenia angusta) in the far east of the country.

You can find the sweetly smelling, and tasting, blooms of Sweet Osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) in soups, desserts or what is called Osmanthus wine.

Sometimes we eat only parts of the flower, such as nectar in the form of honey, and the stigma (the landing pad for pollen) when we use saffron.

Top Dutch restaurants may serve you candied tulip petals. Here in Australia you might be served a sparkling white wine poured over the syruped calyx (the floral parts outside the petals) of Roselle or Wild Rosella (Hibiscus sabdariffa), an Asian species now ‘naturalised’ in tropical Australia.

Flowering plants (and animals) might dominate our plates, but there are many other tasty organisms out there. On my flower-eating trip to Yunnan I tried a few new mushrooms and toadstools.

I also sampled the soft growing tips of a local conifer, as well as various ferns, lichens, mosses, and a large dish of algae from the Mekong River (illustrated at above!). The latter contained rather more of the Mekong (mostly sand and silt) than I would have preferred, but all dishes were quite edible, and usually enjoyable.

The Nori used to wrap modern-day sushi is possibly the best know seaweed product, but marine algal extracts are used as emulsifiers (to keep materials in solution) and thickeners in foods such as ice cream and tomato sauce.

Do try new plants, and other related things, but do it at a restaurant or under the guidance of someone who knows what they are doing…

*From the Radio Archives, and also expanded for a print article in the Friends of the Gardens magazine, The Garden, a few years back.

Image: A plate of 'blanket weed' (an alga, probably Cladophora) from the Mekong River, part of a meal I had in Jinghong in southern China.

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