The lotus eaters

The aquatic flower, so central to Buddhist tradition, is also at the heart of many wonderful dishes

Phad cha lai bua with catfish.

The lotus flower may be small in size, but culturally, it holds great significance for Thais and Buddhists around the world. The lotus, a plant that emerges from mud and rises above water, is a symbol of purity. Symbolically, it cleanses and purifies. Buddhists use lotus flowers as offerings to convey their sincere respect for monks and venerated figures in Buddhism.

Besides its auspicious meaning in religion, the lotus has many uses, not least in cooking. There are two types: lotus and water lily. These two varieties and their different parts serve various purposes. Grown in water, the lotus is deemed clean and safe to eat.

Bua sai, or water lily, is an ingredient that appears in various Thai recipes. The most popular is kaeng sai bua with pla tu nueng (sai bua curry with steamed mackerel). This dish is made by peeling bua sai stems and cutting them into pieces about 5cm long. The pieces are washed thoroughly and left to drain. Next, the curry paste is prepared by pounding together shallots, shrimp paste and krachai. This is cooked with coconut milk and seasoned with salt and sugar. Madan is added to give a sour flavour. Fish sauce is not recommended in this recipe as it causes the lily stems to blacken. After the soup is seasoned, the lily stems and a whole pla tu are added to complete the dish.

Sai bua andlai bua for sale.

Another popular main is stir-fried sai bua with shrimp. This easy dish involves cutting the stems into pieces. Add a little oil to a hot wok, and fry some chopped garlic until fragrant. Next, add some shrimp and bua sai stems, and season with sugar and salt. Fry for 2-3 minutes only, otherwise the stems become too soft. Bua sai stems can also served raw with nam prik.

Aside from main dishes, bua sai stem is used to make kanom sai bua, an old-style Thai dessert. Preparation is similar to making kanom kluay (banana pudding). Instead of using ripe bananas, bua sai stems are pounded until fine before being kneaded with rice flour, coconut cream, salt and sugar. The mixture is then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.

The other type of lotus is called bua luang in Thai. It is famed for its beautiful pink flowers. Bua luang propagates by shoots that grow out of the tuber. The tuber can be several metres in length. When the tuber is embedded in the soil underwater, a new rhizome will form and tubers will grow downward into the mud.

Water lily stems are used for cooking.

Bua luang stem is not eaten, because it is hard and tough with thorny skin. However, the growth shoot, called lai bua in Thai, is edible. By washing the shoots thoroughly and cutting them into pieces, you can make phad cha lai bua with catfish or shellfish. Phad cha is a spicy stir-fried dish. First you need to make paste by pounding red chillies (prik chee fa) with bird's-eye chillies, garlic and galangal. Heat some oil in a wok, add the paste and fry until fragrant. Then add catfish or shellfish and lai bua and stir-fry. Next, add sliced red chillies, kaffir lime leaves, sliced krachai roots (aromatic rhizome) and fresh peppercorn. Season with fish sauce, sugar and add basil leaves just before removing the wok from the heat.

Lai bua is also used to make kaeng som (spicy sour curry). Lai bua retains its crunchiness even when cooked. The problem is it is not easy to find. If lucky, you might be able to buy it at a large fresh market that sells regional vegetables.

Lotus seeds can be eaten fresh and dried. Fresh lotus seeds are delicious when made into a soup by boiling pork bone or minced pork. But fresh lotus seeds are only sold at places in proximity to the areas where lotuses are grown.

Dried lotus seeds can be found anywhere, but the best source is Yaowarat and Sam Yan markets where the seeds are imported from China. Dried lotus seeds can be used to make various dishes, such as bajang (sticky rice dumpling), khanom maw kaeng (a custard-like dessert) and khao phad haw bai bua (fried rice wrapped in lotus leaf).

Lotus leaves are highly functional. A special quality is that they are waterproof. Traditionally, people used the leaves to wrap rice in lieu of lunch box. Rice doesn't stick to the leaf. Furthermore, it absorbs the leaf's fragrant scent.

Lotus seeds in syrup.

With such unique qualifications, it makes sense for lotus leaves to be used in khao phad haw bai bua. To make this dish, the rice is fried together with Chinese red pork, a sweet Chinese sausage called kunchieng, salted egg, ginkgo seeds and lotus seeds. When seasoned to taste, the mixture is wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed.

These days, the beautiful petals of lotus flowers are frequently used in food presentation and as an ingredient in appetisers.

These are but a few attributes of this special plant. It is cherished in religious belief and in cooking. Amid growing concerns about food safety, the lotus can be considered a safe choice.