"The lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud." – Buddhist proverb
I'm starting this post with this popular saying to give you an idea of the symbolic significance of the sacred lotus plant in Buddhist and Hindu art and literature. Straightforwardly, it means rising above the murk and resembles the purification of the human spirit.
More importantly, I'd like you to get a mental image of where lotus roots, today's featured vegetable on the Spring Discovery series, come from. Mud. Yes, mud.
Lotus roots are rhizomes of the lotus flower that grow in muddy ponds across Asia, known for the striking pattern of holes that reveal themselves when cut crosswise. As a young child in Malaysia, I called lotus root the "telephone vegetable", and I grew up having them boiled in soup with peanuts. The lotus root soup recipe I'm sharing here is a vegetarian version that I now make.
When we talk about Chinese soups, tong, we talk about the nourishing and comforting qualities that come from slow cooking an intentional combination of healthful ingredients, which can sometimes include medicinal herbs. For me, it's like a warm hug for my tummy. And I know it's the soup, more than anything else, on the dining table that has made my husband feel most welcomed during family meals in the early days of our relationship.
Quite different from the Western concept of having soup as the first course of a meal, tong is enjoyed throughout the meal, served family style along with rice and an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes. Soups are also specifically made to address certain dietary and health needs, serving either preventive or curative purposes, and are one of the best remedies I know for an ailing body. And even spirit. So it's no wonder that "Drink your soup!" was so often a stern order on the family table during my childhood.
I must admit that many of the dishes I cook on this blog is a response to my homesickness, and this soup is no different. This recipe is a collaboration with my dad, who insisted over a long-distance call that I use red beans (or aduki) instead of peanuts for the benefits of their high fiber, protein, and antioxidant contents.
I realized very quickly after that phone call that my obsession with ingredients has been honed over the years by this man. Up to today, "eat this because it's good for you" is the soundtrack he plays whenever I try to learn a recipe from him. I remember how the mere mention of an ailment, say a headache, would procure a magical ingredient from his bottomless Doraemon pocket. Food as a health remedy was often a theme in our household. So, watch out, here comes the ingredient list for this soup!
Lotus roots can grow rather long and come linked in segments like sausages. To use, cut at the links to get the portion you need, trim off the hard ends, and remove the thin outer skin with a peeler. If there's dirt inside, rinse it out under running water and use a chopstick to get to areas that are hard to reach.
The rhizome is usually sliced crosswise to use in soups, stews, and stir-fries. It is mild tasting and has an inviting crunchy texture that can be thinly sliced and added raw into salads, especially if they are young, or deep fried to produce addicting chips. For soups and stews, go for more mature roots that will turn softer with longer cooking time but still retain a tender bite, like just-cooked potatoes.
I've been told that lotus roots are in season in autumn, which was when I found them in abundance in Oakland Chinatown (two photos above). Other times of the year, I've found them at the Asian grocery store, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. Select firm roots that are light beige for freshness and make sure there are no cracks or bruises. Store refrigerated in a plastic bag. They are best used within a week or so.
It is my duty as my father's daughter to add that the lotus root is high in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and is believed to aid blood circulation and help manage cholesterol.
Adding corn on the cob to soups may seem awkward at first but it will make perfect sense when you taste this soup. The gentle sweetness gives this vegetarian soup depth, and I must also say digestive and blood sugar benefits. The red beans will disintegrate and provide the soup with some texture and thickness. Dried red dates and dried goji berries, part of my essential pantry staples, contribute more flavor and health benefits, and you can read about them here (of course I've already written about them at length!)
When I need a quick soup, I make the extremely easy ABC Soup, but when it comes to slow cooking a soup like this, I've learned a few important things to ensure a great flavor:
- Make sure the ingredients to water ratio is reasonable, and don't add water in the middle of cooking. If absolutely necessary, boiling water is what you add.
- Allow adequate simmering time for the ingredients to release their flavors and nutrients. Three hours is what my dad prescribes but I've done it in two. If you don't want to babysit your pot of soup, use a slow cooker and cook it on high for three hours or on low overnight, and boil the water separately first. I use just-boiled water even when I cook soup on the stovetop to speed up the process.
- Finally, only salt at the very end, to taste. I also like to dip the lotus root in chilli soy sauce.
These are not hard and fast rules. Soup-making is actually really easy, flexible, and forgiving. Are you ready to get that warming tummy hug?
This post is part of the on-going Spring Discovery series and this year's focus is on Asian vegetables. You may also be interested to find out more about Asian greens, taro root, and black fungus. Happy cooking!
Lotus Root Soup with Corn and Red Beans
A refreshing vegetarian soup that can be cooked on the stovetop or slow cooker. Serves 4.
1 lbs (450g) lotus root, cleaned, peeled, and sliced crosswise
1 medium corn, chopped into 3 parts (or 2 corns for a sweeter soup)
1/2 cup red beans, rinsed and drained
10 red dates, washed
8 cups just-boiled water
1 tablespoon dried goji berries
Sea salt, to taste
Green onion, chopped, for garnish (optional)
In a large pot, add all the ingredients except goji berries, green onion, and salt. Bring to a boil and let simmer on low heat for 2 to 3 hours. If using a slow cooker, cook on high for 3 hours or on low overnight. 30 minutes before it's done, add the goji berries. At the end, turn off the heat and add salt to taste. Ladle into serving bowls and top with green onion. Serve warm with rice.