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

Cold Tofu with Pidan

One of my favorite ways to enjoy 1000-year eggs is as part of a cold-tofu salad.  This presentation of pidan is enjoyed all over China this way as well as in Taiwan, Japan and Korea.  It is served as an appetizer or as part of a meal with many dishes eaten at the same time.  For western cooks, it is simple to make, exotic, nutritious (full of protein) and welcomes an endless array of variations to suit almost any taste.  It also works well as a snack or a light meal

The secret to this fabulous dish is in the dressing.  It is salty, savory, sour and a bit sweet all at the same time.

Cold Tofu with Pidan
Cold Tofu with Pidan

It can be served as a mixed melee as I have done in the photo above, or it can be served Japanese style, like a hiyayakko, where each ingredient is placed separately on a platter and diners can pick only those ingredients that they want.

Cold Tofu with Pidan

Ingredients
Salad
8-10 ounces of silken tofu
2 1000-year eggs
1-2 tablespoons shredded bonito
1 large spring onion, minced
1/3 cucumber, peeled and minced (or cut into a small dice)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1 red chili pepper (optional, but good)

Dressing
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon black vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar (I use demerara)
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Method
Place the tofu in a serving dish or bowl and slice into cubes; keep the cubes together in a single unit.  Quarter one of the 1000-year eggs and place around the base of the tofu.  Roughly chop the second pidan and set aside.  Place shredded bonito on top of the tofu, then place the roughly chopped pidan on top of the bonito.

In a small bowl mix together the spring onion, cucumber, garlic, ginger and chili pepper.  When well mixed, place on top of the tofu and other ingredients.  In a small cup or bowl combine the ingredients for the dressing and mix until blended. Pour dressing over tofu and serve immediately.

Variations:  This dish is really flexible and can be easily changed to suit your tastes.  You can substitute pork floss for bonito, or omit the meat flavors altogether for a dish more suitable for vegetarians.  If you enjoy the flavor wallop of Chinese pickled mustard, add a tablespoon to the vegetable mix. If you don’t like the sometimes overpowering flavor of sesame oil – use less, or omit completely.  If you prefer it more sour use only black vinegar.

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Over the next week or two, I hope to post a bunch of recipes for pidan from around Asia. Check back soon for more great food! (Words, recipe, and photos by Laura Kelley).

Pomegranate Symbolism for Spring

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.

Pomegranate Spring