I claim to be no expert in Buddhism or Hinduism, but from the little I do know, the Lotus plant plays a significant role. For Hindus, the lotus symbolizes both beauty and non-attachment. As the lotus flower is rooted in mud, but floats on its stem above the water, so too we are to exist in this world but remain untouched by it. Three similar symbolic stages exist for Buddhists; the mud where the lotus root rests is associated with Materialism, the water where the stem resides symbolizes Experience, and the sun which bathes the beautiful lotus blossom represents the final desired stage of Enlightenment.
The root is rather unattractive at first, easy to pass over without any notice. It is firm in texture, with a shape that could be described as a cross between a potato and sausage links. These links can reach up to 4 feet long, and can be broken apart into sections (which I hear might be frowned upon by market owners).
The roots are very healthy, full of vitamins (in particular Vitamin C), fiber, minerals, iron and calcium.
My first experience eating lotus root was at a delightful restaurant in Allston, MA called Jo Jo TaiPei. Delicious flavor, surprising texture, and beautiful appearance. The lotus was seasoned predominately with sesame, served chilled as a starter salad. The texture is reminiscent of a water chestnut - soft, yet with a snappy crunch. While on the outside the root isn't anything to notice, once cut into rounds, the delicate, lacy pattern is revealed. They are truly striking.
I ventured into Philadelphia's China Town last weekend, determined to find the perfect lotus root. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day, not too humid thankfully. I found a tiny, family run grocery that had a small selection of produce, everything looking fresh and well-chosen. I love wandering in places like this, because it is exciting to realize that so many of my fellow Americans eat so differently from me on a daily basis. Their weekly staples are my exotic finds, and that is so refreshing. In my own backyard there are a plethora of cultures begging to be explored, and tasted.
In broken English a fellow patron asked with a combination of polite skepticism and interest, "You are cooking Chinese?" I laughed and told her I was going to try, which seemed to please her. She proceeded to help me find the perfect selection of lotus root from the bin of sausage-like potatoes. The woman at the register, observing our interaction, seemed equally intrigued and asked me it's name in English. I asked her the Chinese name and did my best to repeat it back to her. "Very good!" she encouraged me. I'm sure she was just being gracious, but I felt wonderful, regardless. Who knew some vegetable shopping could turn into a language lesson?
While this recipe below certainly can't compete with the Jo Jo TaiPei lotus salad I so enjoyed, it is an effortless way to start using lotus root. Lotus root may also be used in stir fry, soup, and stew, or even pickled or stuffed. Have fun experimenting with the recipe, and adapt it to your liking.
CHILLED SESAME LOTUS ROOT SALAD
Wash the lotus root well. Remove the outer skin using a vegetable peeler, cutting off the root ends. Slice the root in diagonal, even slices, 1/8" thick. Immediately plunge the slices into ice cold water (I like to first add either lemon juice or a little vinegar to the water to prevent any browning of the root). Drain the root slices.
In a heat-safe bowl, pour enough boiling water over the root slices until they are covered. Let the root slices rest until they are tender-crisp, about 8-10 minutes. Drain the root slices and rinse with cold water. Pat dry and chill.
Meanwhile, mix up your dressing by combining the ginger, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and black pepper in a small bowl, whisking until well blended. Pour over lotus slices and continue chilling until you are ready to serve.Adapted from ChinaTownConnection.com