Spring on the Silk Road Means: Black Locust Blossoms

Black Locust Blossoms
Black Locust Blossoms

Spring has finally come to the Central Atlantic and all the leaves have opened out into a sea of green. In our area, dairy cows graze and suckle their young in fields of buttercups and the first cascades of wild roses are blooming on the edge of the woods. This time of year also means that the fleeting blooming of tree flowers is also upon us. My favorites to be had in abundance here are the black locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia) that bloom in off-white grape-like clusters. Just pick, clean, prepare and enjoy a bit of nature’s sweet bounty.

I was introduced to eating locust flowers when I was a little girl. My Austrian grandfather would gather them from the trees around his house and make them into pancakes or fritters that he then dusted with a bit of confectioner’s sugar or a dash of honey. The flowers themselves have no taste, but the pea-like base of the flower is lightly sweet and crunchy. They are sweetest when the flowers are barely opened, so if you live in more northern climes than we do, keep your eyes peeled for the blooms and pick them as soon as you can.

Black Locust Leaf
Black Locust Leaf

The trees themselves have deeply crenulated light-grey bark that is easy to slip your hands into sideways. This gives even younger trees an aged appearance. The leaves are pennate, or arranged like feathers around a central stalk and sway gently in a fern-like manner with even a light breeze. If you are relatively confident that the flowers will be pesticide free, I recommend that you NOT wash the flowers before preparing as this will rinse away some of the fragrance and flavor. Instead, pick thru the blossoms by hand for insects or other impurities.

Most European recipes I have come across over the years emphasize the sweet nature of the flowers. Many different nationalities make fritters or pancakes, doughnuts, or if harvest is bountiful, they can be used to flavor custards, jams, and syrups, and other sweet foods. The Italians add a bit of cheese (usually ricotta) to the fritters for an added flavor.

On the other hand, many Silk Road countries prepare them in a savory or spicy manner, or use them to add sweet flavor to dishes that are otherwise not sweet. Some cultures in the Eastern Europe/Western Asia area also make flavored sodas with the syrup.

In India, people lightly saute the flowers with whole spices (a couple of cloves, black pepper, some cumin (not too much) and coriander, and serve the flowers over rice as a seasonal delicacy. In the north and in some areas of the Himalayas, star anise is used as a the dominant flavor. Since they are a wild food with a limited season, the spicing of the fritters or sauteed flowers is very variable. Because whole spices are used, the flavor is a bit milder than if the spices were ground. This allows for the natural sweetness of the flowers to shine through. In an Ayurvedic diet, the flowers are also useful as an antispasmodic and laxative, and poultices of them can be applied to speed the healing of some skin lesions – like chickenpox.

Eggs with Locust Blossoms
Eggs with Locust Blossoms

The black locust is a common tree in China, and is often called ( 洋槐 “yanghuai”), or Foreign Scholar Tree, as both the tree itself and the flowers can resemble the Scholar Tree (Japanese Pagoda Tree Sophora japonica that is native there. Two common ways of preparing them in China are as rice-flour fritters that are then served with a rich and savory brown sauce, or as an addition to chilli-pepper laden scrambled eggs. In the latter, the sweet flowers add both texture and a light flavor to the otherwise spicy eggs.

Further east in Japan and Korea, bunches of flowers are cooked in a tempura batter and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces, or in a “dry tempura,” flowers can be broken off the stem, rinsed, mixed with small chunks of tofu, sprinkled with tempura batter, and lightly fried. Likewise the individual flowers can be parboiled, and lightly pickled (1 week or less) in rice vinegar and sugar and eaten as a condiment or light snack. In Vietnam, locust blossoms are used with mint, chopped vegetables and shrimp to flavor summer rolls which are then dipped in a peanuty chilli-garlic sauce.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to enjoy locust blossoms beyond fritters and pancakes. I hope this inspires you to get out there and pick them during their fleeting season. Since my post only listed a few Asian recipes for locust blossoms, if you would like to share some of your own recipes, please do so in the comments.

Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photograph of Black Locust Blossoms by Fotodietrich @ Dreamstime.com; photograph of Black Locust Leaf from Wikimedia; photograph of Eggs with Locust Blossoms by Laura Kelley.

Natto in Japan and Beyond

Natto, or fermented soybeans, are everywhere in Japan. There are natto burgers, natto bruschetta made with heaps of natto mixed with melted cheese or tomatoes on toasted bread, and even natto curries and sushi. But the most common way Japanese people eat natto is for breakfast over steamed rice with condiments, such as pickled fruits and vegetables. To me, one of the most interesting things about Japan’s beloved, traditional natto is that there is nothing uniquely Japanese about it. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]

Homemade Natto on Rice
Homemade Natto on Rice

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend
Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

Ingredients
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Method
Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickles

Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers
Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

As the mercury in Baltimore and DC has recently approached or broken 100° Fahrenheit, many folks here have turned to an easier, cooler way to dine. A few small salads or appetizers, some fresh bread and a light dinner is served. A sort of a Central Atlantic, tapas-style meal if you will. Slaws and potato salads are standard offerings in this region, but for those who wish to try a dish which brings an exotic dash to the table, these Bhutanese pickles are a must. They are simple to make, need only sit for a week before using, and are possible to eat a bit earlier if a sweeter, thinner pickle is desired.

As part of our continuing exploration of the food of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, these delightful pickles are sweet and lightly hot at the same time, with occasional blasts of coriander or cumin seed, giving a lighter, spicier flavor to them as you eat. For those with heat-sensitive palates, the number of chilies can be reduced for a gentler pickle, but as written, the recipe is a nice balance of sweet, hot, and spicy flavors.

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Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

Ingredients
4 Asian cucumbers or 1-2 large western ones
1 tablespoon sea salt
11/2 cups rice vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4-5 finger-hot chili pepper or 4 hot, dried Thai chili peppers, diced

Method
Slice cucumbers to fit a sealable jar or container. Remove seeds, if desired.  You may cut the cucumber into chunks or spears; there is really no set way to shape the pickles.  In general, the thinner the slices or chunks, the less time required to pickle. Salt the cucumbers and let stand for a couple of hours, preferably in a warm place.

Warm rice vinegar and water in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar until dissolved. When done, remove from heat and let cool to warm or room temperature.

Transfer the cucumbers into the sealable container and add the crushed Szechuan peppercorns, the cumin and coriander seeds and the diced chili pepper into the jars being sure to divide them evenly. Then, pour the sweetened vinegar over them. Depending on how you sliced or diced the cucumbers, you may need a second batch of sweetened vinegar to cover the vegetables. Seal jar and give them a good shake or two. Set aside in a cold place for about a week before eating. For a sweeter pickle, it may be possible to enjoy after a few days.

After a week, the jars should be kept in a refrigerator or in another cold place, even if unopened, to avoid them becoming too sour. If a jar is forgotten and allowed to sour too much, the cucumbers can still be used to add a sour blast to stews, curries or soups – sort of like one might do with too sour kimchee – make kimchee jigaae.

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Szechuan Peppercorns
Szechuan Peppercorns

The magic ingredient that really sets these pickles apart is the Szechuan peppercorns. Related to both the rue and citrus families (not other types of peppercorns or chilies) Szechuan pepper imparts a distinct, zingy flavor to recipes, and can numb the lips and tongue in large quantities. It is also one of the cornerstone seasonings in Bhutanese cuisine and makes a deliciously, unique pickle.

In Bhutan, these pickles would probably be served over rice or with bread. Accompanying flavors would include fresh, cooked or pickled chili peppers and cheese or yogurt. Feel free to experiment with how they work on your table. Good recipes are made to be personalized and adapted for individual use.

Variations: Thinly sliced carrots can be added to the cucumbers, or the pickling recipe and method can be used to pickle other vegetables en seul or in a mix such as the popular asparagus and mushroom combination enjoyed in Bhutan.

(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photos of Sliced Bhutanese Pickles and Szechuan Peppercorns by ZKruger@Dreamstime.com)