PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2004, 12:00am

Using flowers in food is sometimes considered pretentious: it brings to mind nouvelle cuisine salads garnished with nasturtiums, marigolds and pansies, or candied violets strewn across cakes decorated with elaborate swirls of buttercream icing. But we eat flowers - or flowering plants - more than we realise: vanilla beans (derived from orchids) are used in pastries; tea infusions are made from flowers such as chrysanthemum, lavender, jasmine and camomile; in Chinese cuisine we eat lily bulbs and lotus roots.

Fragrant roses are often used to flavour and perfume Middle Eastern food. The pink- and red-petalled flowers are distilled for rosewater, infused for teas and oils, and dried and used in sweet and savoury dishes. The flavour can be overwhelming so if you don't want your food to taste like perfumed hand-cream, use sparingly.

Don't cook with roses bought from a florist because the flowers have probably been sprayed with all kinds of chemicals. Rosewater (sold at shops such as Great and city'super) is good in creamy desserts such as ice creams, sauces and custards. It should be added at the end of the cooking process because heat dissipates the flavour. A few drops of rosewater give an ordinary rice pudding an exciting taste. Cook the rice with sugar, milk, egg yolks and vanilla bean, and when the rice is tender let the mixture cool slightly. Stir in the rosewater and serve the rice pudding hot or cold.

Dried roses are used for teas and help make an exotic poaching syrup for dried fruits. Make an ordinary poaching syrup with two parts granulated sugar to three parts water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Stir in a small handful of dried roses and heat to a simmer. Add the dried fruit, cover with the lid, turn off the heat and let the fruit cool in the syrup. Strain the fruit and simmer the poaching liquid to reduce it slightly. Serve the fruit with a little poaching liquid and sprinkle with unsalted chopped pistachio nuts.

Most of us won't be making anything that calls for fresh, chemical-free and fragrant roses, but we can still find many of these preparations in Hong Kong. The rose-petal jam from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central is excellent; it is delicious with scones and clotted cream or spooned into tiny tarts and topped with fresh berries. Veda on Arbuthnot Road, Central, makes a wonderful rose-petal sorbet, while Turkish delight flavoured with roses is sold at upmarket food shops. Unfortunately, the quails with rose petals served by the heroine to her lover in Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate isn't on any menu I'm aware of.