No Sweet Sour: Crunchy Lotus Root Salad (Liangban Cui Ou, 凉拌脆藕)
From Yunnan, With Love
I am thrilled to welcome Michelle Zhao of No Sweet Sour as a new contributor to this blog. Michelle grew up in Kunming, Yunnan, and now lives in Bergen, Norway, so she is intimately familiar with one of China’s most diverse and delicious cuisines as well as with the challenges of trying to prepare regional Chinese food outside China. I’ve been following her on Instagram for some time, where every photo makes me wish I was eating what she’s eating. I think you’ll feel the same, starting with this crunchy, spicy lotus root cold dish.
Text and photos by Michelle Zhao
If I have to write a list of my favorite vegetables, lotus—the white root vegetable shot through with lovely holes—is definitely on top of the list. It has a crunchy, celery-like texture, with a natural floral scent and a sweet, potato-like taste. For me, lotus root also tastes like home.
Growing up in Yunnan, I ate lotus root often. Most of that lotus came from Fuxian Lake (抚仙湖), located southeast of my hometown of Kunming in Chengjiang city. The lake area is a weekend getaway destination for people from the nearby cities, with numerous farm-style inns, or nongjiale (农家乐, nóngjiālè), offering rooms and family-style cooking with ingredients from their farms and gardens. My friends and I would go to the lake’s manmade beach for activities such as rental of fishing equipment and boats, jet skies and diving. For Kunming people, who live surrounded by mountains, the beautiful, ocean-like scenery of Fuxian Lake makes us feel like we are seaside.
At the nongjiale, lotus root, potatoes and Fuxian Lake fish are the three must-have ingredients on the dinner table, often prepared in local Jiangchuan-made copper pots. They are considered to be the specialty cooking of Chengjiang. The lotus root is often boiled together with Fuxian’s endemic Kanglang fish (Anabarilius grahami) as a stew or stir-fried with lake shrimp and seasonal greens. Lotus root is also made into a crispy snack (炸藕饼, zhà ǒubǐng) by grinding the root, mixing with flour, shaping it into a flat mini pancake and deep-frying. My favorite dish from Fuxian is the copper-pot potato rice, a pot of crispy, fragrant and flavorful potatoes, steamed together with Yunnan’s famous Xuanwei ham, peas and rice.
The harvest season for lotus root is in autumn. The harvest is very labor intensive. While it’s called lotus root in English, the bulbous vegetable is actually a rhizome, or underground stem, that grows in sections resembling sausage links. Because the stems are growing under the water in the thick and heavy mud, and because they are quite fragile, harvesters cannot use heavy machinery. The workers dress in a waterproof one-piece suit from neck to feet before wading into the lake. They use a high-pressure water gun to blow away some of the mud that is covering the lotus root. Then they must bend down, locate the direction the root is growing, pull the head root out from the mud, and continue moving forward while slowly pulling more sections of the root out from the mud. It takes years of practice to be able to pull out the entire root in one piece.
[Editor’s note: If you’re not following Dianxi Xiaoge on YouTube, now would be a good time to start. A wonder woman cook in rural Yunnan, she harvests her own lotus root and prepares it a half-dozen ways in this video.]
At markets in China, it is easy to detect the quality and freshness of lotus root. Whereas in Europe, where I live now, all of the lotus I have found has been packaged in shrink wrap. The only way I can detect the quality is to observe the shape and color and use my fingers to gently squeeze the root. Fresh lotus root should have light yellow-white skin without any dark spots. Select sections that are round and wide, because these ones are the middle part of the lotus root and usually the most flavorful and juicy. Avoid lotus roots that have large black spots and bruises on the surface or the ones that are soft when you press them with your fingers. (Also avoid the lotus root that has been sliced and preserved in liquid; besides being unnaturally white, they retain little of their fresh taste.)
Another tip is to count the holes on lotus root. They usually come with seven or nine holes. The ones that have seven holes are best for soup and stew, while the ones with nine holes are ideal for salad and stir fry. It is, of course, not always possible to determine the number of holes when they are tightly packed in plastic bags. But it will help to explain why sometimes your lotus root salad is not as crunchy as the other times.
On top of its appealing look and taste, lotus root has very high nutritional value. It also contains very high starch. The starch is extracted, dried into a powder, packed in small portioned bags then sold as a product of its own. We call it 藕粉 (ǒufěn, literally translated as lotus root powder). Simply mix a bag of lotus root powder together with boiling water, whisk until the mixture thickens into a soup, and it’s ready to eat. Topped with a piece of steamed rice cake, brown sugar syrup and dried fruits, it is also a dessert specialty in Yunnan.
There are many different ways to prepare lotus root. The most common is lotus root soup with pork ribs. The root is also frequently just stir-fried together with fermented mustard greens or other types of pickles. One of my favorite ways to eat it is as a cold dish, or salad, for the summer season.
To prepare the lotus root, trim off the black part on the head and bottom. The skin is edible, though, you should slice off any visible black spots on the stem. Then rinse under cold water to get rid of any remaining dirt. This recipe calls for 300 grams of lotus root, which equals more or less one whole section of the root.
The Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili here are not roasted, highlighting the raw flavor of the two ingredients. For a smoky version, lightly roast the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili in a dry pan before combining with the other ingredients. You can reduce the heat level by discarding the seeds of the chili.
Michelle Zhao is the creator of No Sweet Sour, an Instagram and blog-based community where she shares recipes and stories of Chinese cuisine, with a particular focus on Yunnan, the southwest province where she was born and raised. Yunnan has the largest number of minority groups in China, with 25 of the country’s 56 minorities. Michelle’s mother belongs to the Samei (撒梅), a small branch of the Yi (彝) minority, and her father is Han (汉), the ethnicity of 92% of the Chinese population. Yunnan’s diversity of peoples and cultures is reflected in its unique flavors and cooking methods. Growing up in the capital city of Kunming, Michelle was exposed to many of the minority cuisines, including Yi, Hui (回), Dai (傣) and Bai (白). These flavors have been missing from her life since she moved to Norway, so her mission with No Sweet Sour is to keep those flavors alive for herself while introducing this most amazing cuisine to the world.
If you love lotus root, also check out our recipe for Gongbao Lotus Root!
Crunchy Lotus Root Salad (Liangban Cui Ou, 凉拌脆藕)
- ⅔ pound lotus root (300 grams)
- 2 tablespoons chili oil
- 1 tablespoon Chinese soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Baoning or Zhenjiang vinegar (Baoning vinegar)
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, crushed in a mortar (or with a Sichuan pepper grinder)
- Several dried Sichuan chilies, whole or snipped in half
- Rinse the lotus root under cold water and use a potato peeler to peel off any visible dark/black spots. (There is no need to remove the entire peel.) Slice lotus in uniform ⅛-inch slices.
- Bring water to boil in a sauce pan and add lotus root. Return to boil and let it cook for three to four minutes, until cooked through but still slightly crunchy. Drain lotus and soak in cold water until completely chilled, then rinse under cold water to remove excess starch. Spread slices out on a kitchen towel or paper towel to dry.
- Combine remaining ingredients in a large bowl to make the sauce. Stir the dry lotus root with the sauce until fully coated and transfer to a serving plate. Serve at room temperature or chilled.