They are often seen as just pretty garnish, but edible flowers are more than just an ingredient chefs use to beautify a plate. Nibble on a dainty petal and you'll notice the tart, bitter notes often used to enhance the overall flavours of a dish.
To be sure, flowers have been part of the human diet for a long time, in both the East and the West. Osmanthus blossoms, for instance, are used in tea and infused in desserts for a floral fragrance. In Southeast Asia, butterfly pea flowers are commonly used to add a tinge of blue to rice.
Over at SKYE restaurant in The Park Lane Hong Kong, a Pullman Hotel, chef Lee Adams has his own rooftop garden where he grows fresh herbs and flowers to be used in his dishes. In winter, he harvests sunny marigolds, begonia and nasturtium, while cucumber flowers and torenia fournieri are blooms he picks during summer months.
"Which flowers you use depends on the flavours of the dish you are preparing," shares Adams. For instance, cucumber flowers are used in an ocean trout tartare dish that has a punchy cucumber kimchi. The petals help cut through the acidity and balances out the dish with a more refreshing taste.
Chef Lee Adams from SKYE tending to the flowers in his rooftop garden
With his own garden, Adams manages to bypass the challenges faced by chefs in temperate countries, where importing these delicate easily-bruised flowers are a nightmare in logistics. Here, the flowers are picked fresh every morning, then delivered to the kitchen where the petals are plucked and cleaned to be used for service.
Besides the cucumber flowers, Adams also uses jasmine flowers in an amuse bouche of salmon smoked in jasmine tea leaves. As the flavour profile of the flowers tend to be more delicate, they are hardly used in meat dishes. "We don't use the flowers unnecessarily, if it doesn't work then we don't put it on," shares Adams.
Different types of edible flowers grown in the rooftop garden of SKYE.
He does, however, find new ways to experiment with the flowers he has to let them be the star of the show. Terroir Salad, for instance, is a dish where whole heads of flowers are coated in a light batter and cooked as tempura. Here, the earthy bitter flavours of the flowers are enhanced by a soy mirin dressing, with the crispy batter rounding off the dish with a nice crunch.
"There are many other things you can do with different varieties," shares Adams. But it all comes back to one thing at the end of the day — fresh is always best.
Meryl Koh is former Digital Associate Editor with the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau. Her hunger for heart-felt connections and breaking stories is fuelled by a good cup of coffee, occasionally spiked with a shot of whisky.
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