Lotus in Vietnamese cuisine
Lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera, Vietnamese: sen) belongs to the family Nelumbonaceae and its flower (Vietnamese: hoa sen or bông sen) is the national flower of Vietnam. The lotus plant lives in muddy swamps but its leaves and flowers are grown above the water surface and permeate the pure fragrance. The lotus symbolizes the purity, the holiness and the patience of the Vietnamese people’s souls.
In Vietnam, there are more than local 20 lotus cultivars, and can be planted on many areas of the country. The Mekong River Delta is known for cultivating a lot of lotus plants, especially in Dong Thap province. Farmers in Dong Thap province have a lot of experience in harvesting and using lotus flowers, lotus pips, seeds, stems in the flooding season as well as producing commercial lotus products. In Vietnam, almost every parts of a lotus plant can be used.
Lotus flowers: The lotus flower is treasured by the Vietnamese, and can be displayed on a Buddha altar or ancestor altar during major holidays. Lotus petals are often used to “marinate” tea leaves to make trà sen (lotus tea), an elegant Vietnamese tea. Another type of tea is called trà tim sen (lotus embryo tea) which is made from lotus embryos.
Lotus leaves: Lotus leaves are historically used to wrap food which transfer the aroma of the leaves to the food. They are also used to make steam dishes, especially cơm hấp lá sen or simply called cơm sen (steamed rice wrapped in a lotus leaf). Lotus rice also has several variations like cơm chiên lá sen (fried rice in a lotus leaf), cơm sen gạo huyết rồng (steamed “dragon blood” brown rice in a lotus leaf), cơm sen ngũ sắc (five-color rice in a lotus leaf)… Lotus leaves are also processed to make trà lá sen (lotus leaf tea) and is considered as a valuable medicine ingredient in Vietnamese traditional medicine.
Lotus rhizome is a safe, premium food and medicinal ingredient. Lotus root is utilized as a vegetable to make stew dish like chân giò hầm hạt sen (stewed pig trotters with lotus rhizome) which levitates the cool but nutty taste of the lotus root and the fatty umami flavor of the collagen. Lotus roots can also be used in salad dishes such as gỏi củ sen tôm, a salad dish made from sliced lotus root and shrimps or prawns. Lotus roots are sometimes stir-fried or sauté’ed like a vegetable.
Young lotus stems aka lotus shoots (Vietnamese: ngó sen) are a popular salad ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. Gỏi ngó sen tôm thịt or simply gỏi ngó sen is a salad dish often found in restaurants, and is made of young stems with shrimps and pork. Variations include gỏi gà ngó sen (chicken salad with lotus shoots), gỏi ngó sen tai heo (lotus shoot salad with pig ears), gỏi bồn bồn ngó sen (bulrush and lotus shoot salad). Home cooks can make quick meals by stir-frying or sauteing young lotus stems with a variety of food ingredients like meat (pork), prawns, chicken, frog legs,… Old lotus stems have no culinary use and some artisans make lotus silk out of their fibers.
Lotus seeds (Vietnamese: hạt sen) can be chargrilled (with skins on) to make a quick rustic snack. They can be made into candied seeds known as mứt hạt sen, quite popular during Tết or Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Lotus seeds are also a popular ingredients in some sweet dessert soups (Vietnamese: chè) such as simple chè hạt sen (lotus seed sweet soup), or more prized chè hạt sen long nhãn (lotus seed sweet soup with longans). Beside chè sweet soups, lotus seeds in Vietnam can also be used to make lotus milk (Vietnamese: sữa sen) whose taste can be compared to soya milk.
Other commercial products are dried lotus seeds and lotus wine which is brewed from lotus seeds, roots and pips together with several herbs.