Put the petal to the mettle: appetite for floral flavours blossoms
With the hyacinth as its motif, this year's Hong Kong Flower Show features an irresistible array of landscape displays, intricate floral arrangements and a pretty profusion of potted plants from the mainland and overseas to mark the arrival of spring.
Chefs have long sought inspiration from blooms. In Chinese cuisine, you'll frequently find flowers - from lotus flower stir-fry to osmanthus jelly. In the West, courgette and squash flowers and wild flower salads featuring peppery nasturtiums and chrysanthemums crop up on menus, as do cakes topped with fresh or crystallised rose, pansy and violet petals.
Lavender is one of the most versatile edible flowers, imparting a flowery essence to everything from honey to creme br?lee. It's used as a herb in savoury dishes, it pairs well with fish and is an alternative to rosemary when roasting a chicken.
Chef Takeshi of Yagura Japanese restaurant at the Eaton Smart hotel believes edible flowers have become more accepted with the rise in popularity of Western-style afternoon tea in Hong Kong, where blooms such as lavender, rose and jasmine are often on the menu, perhaps in the form of lavender cookies or rose-tinged jam. 'To Hongkongers, afternoon tea represents a luxury style of living, so they are willing to explore the potential of edible flowers,' he says.
At Yagura, Takeshi is using hanaho, the flower from the perilla plant, to impart a sweet flavour to horsehair crab leg sashimi and grilled crab shell. The leaves are better known as the Japanese mint shiso. The chef is also using one of Japan's national emblems - a member of the chrysanthemum family, the slightly bitter, aromatic kogiku plant features in a dish of wagyu with kogiku vinegar jelly.
Chrysanthemums are also on the menu at Yat Tung Heen. Other Chinese favourites, osmanthus and jasmine, are used respectively in baked abalone puffs and steamed vegetarian dumplings. Roses bring a sweetness and spiciness to scallops.
Yat Tung Heen's chef Tam says, 'This is the first time I've used edible flowers in dim sum, and guests have been surprised by the flavours.'
The floral influence continues on the dinner menu, which includes deep-fried chicken fillet with lime sauce and chrysanthemum, and ham with sweet osmanthus and lo han prawns. Tam adds that while osmanthus, usually sweetened with sugar to flavour Chinese soups and jellies, is one of the most popular edible flowers in Hong Kong, it can also be used to balance the saltiness of savoury plates, such as his ham dish, and lend a deep, fragrant tone. Tulips are said to impart a flavour similar to cucumber.
Hotel Nikko's Chinese restaurant, Toh Lee, offers several floral delicacies, including smoked silver cod flavoured with tulip and osmanthus, and sauteed diced wagyu with rose petals and honey.
Its Japanese restaurant, Sagano, is celebrating the sakura or cherry blossom season with a set lunch and dinner that include many cherry leaf scented dishes. Cherry blossoms have long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, and the petals are pickled in ume vinegar and added to traditional confectionery.
For those keen to cook flowers at home, Takeshi says, 'The aroma of any flower is sensitive to high temperatures and is likely to be lost under complicated cooking methods, so keep it simple by steaming or stir-frying, or just eat them raw after making sure your blooms are thoroughly cleaned.'
So why not go and pick up some edible blooms at the flower show - roses and chrysanthemums are a good place to start. But be warned, unless you know for sure, it is best to assume that flowers are poisonous.