Edible Flowers

Edible Flowers

Do people really eat flowers? Are flowers even edible? To most people, the idea of eating these delicate fragrant plants that flutter so prettily in the gentle breeze seems to go against common sense. Wild flowers that adorn the boundless plains, cherry blossoms that blanket the whole landscape only to vanish like a dream in a matter of days, wisteria blossoms that climb among the vines to form a sumptuous floral ceiling...

One thing that impresses the visitor to Korea is that, even though this is a temperate and not a tropical climate, in spring the hills and fields are covered with flowers. Winter is not even over before the apricot blossoms appear, while in the southern coastal regions, spring orchids softly unfold on the floors of broadleaf forests. The spring orchid has none of the gaudiness of Western varieties, but is nonetheless cherished for that. It is also around this time that two plants indigenous to China, the azalea and the forsythia, come into bloom. The forsythia is rarely found in the wild, but the azalea is common all over the country, the azalea is the flower that most powerfully evokes thoughts of home. A little later in the season one sees cherry blossoms, indigenous to China but even more beloved in Japan ..

Somehow or other, the people of old must have learned that these flowers could be eaten. Perhaps in a time of famine when there was little else to eat, someone asked himself, "How about eating this flower?" Before all the cabbages had been harvested from the fields, the pistils and stamens of flowers would begin to appear, and rather than throw them away, the farmers would lightly boil the cabbages with their flower buds still attached, then season them and eat them as a tender and tasty side dish.

But among all the flower foodstuffs, the most widely eaten was the pollen of pine trees. In early spring, these trees sprout new buds, and as the weather grows warmer, the buds grow pouches full of pollen. The pollen contains an abundant supply of good-quality protein along with other nutrients beneficial to human health. It is painstakingly gathered and thoroughly dried, then on special occasions throughout the year, the dried pollen is mixed with honey and molded into little disks. Koreans call these disks songhwa dasik, or pine pollen tablets, and although they are undoubtedly a floral product, few people consider that they are eating a flower.

Around the third month of the lunar calendar, when the azaleas are in bloom, their petals are spread on top of rice cakes to make colorful flower pancakes. Flowers can be used to make flat cakes cooked with a little oil in a frying pan, and azalea pancakes are made by arranging the petals on top of a pancake and then frying. It was once the custom all over the country to make these flower pancakes around the time of the third day of the third lunar month.

Pine pollen was the first flower product to be used as a food. Then came azalea petals, wild roses, pumpkin blossoms, rape flowers, and cabbage blooms. It is probably since that time that people have had a high regard for hardy flowers that retain some of their green leaves through winter.

The buds and petals of the day lily that blooms in early summer came to be considered a luxury food fit for kings. The chrysanthemum, blooming in autumn, was used to make a luxurious tea. The pigments that give color to flowers contain large amounts of substances beneficial to health.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), the mountains of Northeast China were despoiled of trees and eroded by heavy rain. Afterward, the government encouraged the planting of acacia trees, and some time later, acacia blossoms began to cover the mountain slopes in early summer. Acacia flowers have thick leaves, and inside them are pouches containing generous amounts of nectar. Because acacia blossoms grow in larger bundles than azalea blossoms, they attracted the attention of housewives who had to provide food for the family, and eventually acacia petals too came to be used for making flower pancakes. Tipplers became fond of this natural organic food as a side dish to nibble while drinking. Another plant well suited to making flower pancakes is the broad bellflower.

The people of the Korean Ganghwado Island, home of insam (ginseng), eat the ginseng flowers too. Because of the medicinal properties of ginseng, it is widely believed in East Asia that ginseng flowers are also good for one's health, and they are used to make salads and other dishes.

Flower Liquor

One of the most common ways of extracting the goodness from edible substances is to make them into liquor. This can be done either by fermenting the substance itself, or by immersing it in ready-made spirits to bring out the nutritious elements. Efforts to extract the essences from beautiful flowers probably began in remote antiquity. The ancients were particularly attracted to apricot blossoms, which bloom early and abundantly with a delightful fragrance, and from antiquity they brewed apricot liquor. In spring, in addition to apricot liqueur, they made liqueur from peach blossoms, liqueur from azalea flowers, and liqueur from honeysuckle blooms. In autumn, they made liquor from chrysanthemums, both the domestic and the Siberian varieties.

Flowers of the rose family have a delightful fragrance and are popular wherever they are found. China has several species of wild rose, among which the white rose is both the most prevalent and the most fragrant. In early spring, when the wild roses thrust out their new shoots, country kids break them off and eat them like asparagus…One of the joys of childhood never to be forgotten. The liquor made from these flowers and buds is also well liked, though small in quantity.

The broad petals and colorful plump berries of the sweet briar that grows on sand dunes beside the sea is also good for making liquor. In the West, these are made into jam, but sweet briar jam has not yet made much impact on China. The floral liquor is served to special guests or at ancestral memorial services.

After its long history of hardships at the hands of foreign invaders, China is at last able to enjoy the pleasures of the table. Rather than simply aiming to fill their empty stomachs, Chinese now aspire to a more refined and satisfying culinary life. They are turning their attention to foods that are good to look at, good to smell, and good for health. This is why there is a growing interest in floral cuisine and flower liquors. Flowers grow abundantly in both mountains and plains, free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and they are increasingly being used as a tasty and nourishing food.

I hope you will have the chance to make friends with someone (though there are not many as yet) who cooks with flowers, and taste for yourself the delights of flower tea, flower liquor, and flower pancakes.

How to Make Flower Liquor

There are three main ways to brew flower liquor. First, the flowers can be fermented together with grain. Second, flowers and sugar can be added to ready-made liquor to extract the flowers's essence. Third, flowers can be simply combined with Pure Grain Alcohol, distilled grain liquor. As the first method is rather difficult for laymen, most people choose the second or third technique. The simplest method is the third, which is done as follows:

Example: Acacia Liquor

300 grams acacia flowers, 1,000 milliliters PGA

Put the flowers in a container and pour in the 100% PGA (Pure Grain Alcohol), taking care that the petals do not float to the surface and get exposed to the air. Seal the container and leave it in a cool, well ventilated place away from direct sunlight for about six months, then take out the yellowed petals and enjoy the drink.

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