Think of eating flowers, and chances are you'll be reminded of a funny scene from Monsoon Wedding (2001), where the character of hilarious wedding-arranger, portrayed by actor Vijay Raaz, is seen chewing on marigolds. But had the petals of his fragrant snack been removed from the stem neatly, trimmed and then used to make some Marigold Cheese Sticks, then Raaz's habit, probably, wouldn't have stuck in our minds for this long.
The truth is, if you're not used to cooking with flowers- although several households in India, and around the world, are- the task can seem quite bewildering. To begin with, many questions come to mind: what flowers can be cooked; what techniques do you use to prepare them; how long can they be stored for, and how can they best be utilised in a dish?
In an attempt to understand cooking with flowers, we asked a few chefs to throw light on the subject, offer tips and recommend a few varieties to start off with.
There is no one way of preparing flowers, but some common techniques used for elderflowers, violas, chamomile flowers, Chinese hibiscuses and lavender flowers involve soaking them in warm water, or drying, and then powdering them.
"Most of these flowers are boiled to create a fragrant liquor, which is then used to flavour the dish, whether it's a sauce or tea," says chef Ajay Chopra.
As per Anuj Thappar, chef and director, Aqaba, Lower Parel, "Flowers are delicate. Some can be consumed raw and the rest need to be slow cooked to retain their flavours and colour. Slow poaching and stewing are other common cooking methods."
He suggests cooking with roses, lavender flowers, squash blossoms, basil flowers, chive flowers and marigolds.
As unusual as it may seem, some varieties like the pumpkin flower, zucchini flower, drum stick flowers and hummingbird tree flower are best "batter fried", according to Asish Roy, executive chef, The Gateway Hotel, Kolkata.
Also read: Herbs for health and wellness
Where you source your edible flowers from is very important. Safe-to-consume flowers need to be grown without pesticides. Most chefs fear using those cultivated in uncontrolled environments because of the chemical treatment they may have undergone.
"Eat flowers that have been grown in organic or natural farms. Flowers from the florist or a nursery have probably been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Also, only eat the petals," says Gautam Mehrishi, executive chef, Sun n Sand Hotel, Juhu.
Wild flowers, he adds, no matter how thoroughly washed, can be just too polluted to take a chance with.
As for storage, most flowers don't have a long shelf life. Chefs recommend using them within 48 hours, and a maximum of 72 hours of plucking.
Mentioned herein are more varieties you can cook with- With inputs from Vishal Sharma, pastry chef, Taj Lands End, Bandra (W)
Basil flowers: Cut the flowers as soon as they appear. Soak in vinegar for a week or more to make herbal vinegar.
Calendula: They can range from peppery and tangy to spicy and even bitter in taste. Add these petals (not the stem) to soups for colour.
Hibiscus: Soak in water and use as a mixer for drinks.
Chrysanthemum coronarium: The petals can be sautéed. Ranging in colours from red, white, yellow and orange, the flowers can have a faint peppery or cauliflower-like taste. Blanch before eating.
Elderflower: Known for their fragrance, add these flowers to water to flavour it. They are also used to create sauces or syrups that can be used for desserts or cocktails.
Marigold: The petals have a citrus-y flavour and can be used in marinades and fish preparations, as a substitute for saffron, or be dropped in hot water to make flavoured tea.
Carnations: Trim the petals and use as a garnish for salads or desserts, giving them a sweet taste and perfumed aroma. Carnations can also be steeped in wine or candy.
Lavender: These flowers lend themselves well to savoury dishes. Use them to make a wine-reduced sauce, which goes well with duck and venison. They have a sweet flavour and taste good in champagne, with chocolate cake or in sorbets and ice creams.
Zucchini flower: Eat it batter-fried as a snack, or even stuffed and baked.
Drumstick flower: Shallow fry these white flowers and use them to make curries or eat with salads.