Lotus root

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Lotus root is one of my favorite vegetables in China. As the name implies, it is the root of the lotus plant. The lotus flower is perhaps the most famous of flowers from Asia. It grows in water, so you can imagine the roots are extremely difficult to harvest. They come out in long white tubes with distinct holes inside.

Before I came to China, I had only once eaten a fried lotus root crisp at a Japanese restaurant. In China it is used more liberally as a vegetable. It’s sometimes simply stir-fried, or eaten cold as a salad, but it can also be more adventurous stuffed with minced pork or shrimps. In its simplest form, as a salad, it provides a great texture. It’s crunchy yet soft. There isn’t much taste to it unfortunately, so it’s best to add some flavoring. Personally, I like it in hot pot with a nice spicy sauce.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 8

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Corn juice

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I know these days we make lots of veggie juices such as kale or beetroot, but corn juice that was a thing anew for me. In order to make corn juice, kernels of corn are cooked and then blended with hot water, so it’s technically speaking not a juice. I have seen it served hot at restaurants in China, but it’s not something you will find at every street corner.

As I don’t really like the idea of drinking a hot juice – wouldn’t that be soup? – I held out till I found a can of it. I can tell you it was weird. Not bad, just weird. Corn does have a natural sweetness, so it definitely worked as a juice, but it’s not fruity  so you’re still left with that savory sensation. There was also a hint of bitterness, almost as if it was burned, that I didn’t particularly care for.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 6

Lily bulb

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There are horror stories in my country about people having to eat tulip bulbs during the hunger winter on 1945. In hindsight eating these tulip bulbs is not that strange a thought, as we eat many other flower bulbs such as onion and garlic. In China, and especially Lanzhou where I live, people also eat flower bulbs. Lily bulbs are sometimes eaten fresh, but tend to be dried for storing.

In some restaurants you can find lily bulb as part of a vegetable dish. I recently tried it with some wood ear mushrooms and lotus root. The white colored petals don’t have much taste of their own. It’s definitely not like onion in that regard. The texture is interesting though, as it’s halfway between soft and crunchy. Perhaps a slightly undercooked potato would be a good comparison. It was a great texture as part of a dish, but it would be bland just on its own.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 7

Curry leaf tempura

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Last year I visited Colombo in Sri Lanka, and I had to visit a Japanese restaurant. Don’t worry I had plenty of local food and rice and curries, but this particular place made it to the top 50 best restaurants in Asia, and that made me curious. It turned out that “Nihonbashi” was indeed a great restaurant, and I still consider it among the best restaurants I have ever eaten at.

My partner and I ordered a wide array of smaller dishes to share including, of course, sushi and sashimi, but there were also a few more unusual items on the menu. One of those was a curry leaf tempura. Curry leaves are native to Sri Lanka and are an essential ingredient in making curries. Hence the name. Obviously.

Curry leaves are often sold dried, as they turn  bad quickly, but at Nihonbashi fresh leaves were used. They were served with a very light, but very crispy tempura batter. To be perfectly honest, I don’t recall any distinct flavors from the leaves. Perhaps the frying had dulled them down, or maybe they just aren’t very strong to begin with. I did find that the crackle of the tempura coating gave a wonderful texture, and made this a perfect snack to munch on.

Fear Factor – 2 / Taste Test – 7

Water chestnuts

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Water chestnuts are in fact not related to regular chestnuts at all. They’re the fruit of a species of water plants, common here in China. I believe I may have eaten them once or twice back in Holland, but always canned. In China, of course, it’s much easier to get fresh ones. And then you can see that they do look like their namesakes after all.

Water chestnuts are shapes like small flat balls and have a brown skin that needs to be peeled. Once peeled a white, potato-like fruit is left. When you eat it raw it resembles an apple in texture and even in taste. It’s not overly sweet or overly sour, so it can be used as a filler and an added crunch in any salad or stir-fry. It won’t give any overpowering flavor, but it adds a bit of texture. I stir-fried mine with chicken, pineapple, ginger and a Thai sweet chili sauce, serving it over rice. It turned out rather nice, like a sweet and sour chicken.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 6

Okra

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Okra, or lady fingers as it’s known in some parts of the world, has a bad reputation. If you cook it for too long it can get very slimy. In the right hands, however, okra can be a wonderful textural vegetable. The skin could be crispy or chewy and the seeds inside will just pop in your mouth.

I’d heard about in some cooking shows, but never saw one in Holland. A few years ago they would be in Chinese supermarkets for about 2 or 3 weeks in a year. These days, however, they’re around for far longer than that, giving me enough time to experiment.

I fried mine with some onions and tomato and added a mild curry sauce. The okra had a very mild, almost nondescript flavor, but it had a great texture. Like I mentioned earlier, the seeds inside will just pop in your mouth, unlike those of a pepper.

Okra: Fear Factor – 2 / Taste Test – 8

Worm grass flower

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Worm grass flower is not a flower but a mushroom, or rather a fungus. Cordycep militaris, as it’s known in Latin, is a parasitic fungus that mummifies and kills butterfly pupae in order to grow. In China it’s used, as are so many other foods, for its health benefits. Most Chinese tend to use the mushrooms in a chicken soup, but I found it at a local restaurant in a mushroom and tofu soup served with vegetable balls.

As a whole, the dish was amazing. The vegetable balls were delicious, the soup tasted slightly medicinal, but mostly of mushrooms, and everything worked very well together. The worm grass flower on its own was a bit overpowering, but was perfectly pleasant to eat when mixed with the other ingredients.

Smell and taste go hand in hand. The parasitic fungus tasted exactly like that, fungus. Imagine if you don’t clean your bathroom for a week or two, and you get that mildewy smell – don’t judge, we were all students once. When I had the mushrooms on their own the taste reminded me of that mildew smell, intensely earthy. It worked in this dish, but I’m not sure if they would replace mushrooms in other dishes.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 5

Dandelion greens

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As a kid I would never have thought of using dandelions as a food source. They’re weeds, you don’t eat them. With the coming of restaurants like Noma, however, foraging for food has become as trendy as cauliflower couscous. I haven’t foraged my own food since stealing off the local farms as a boy, but I happened on some dandelion leaves at a local Chinese restaurant.

The greens were served wilted – perhaps blanched or fried – but cold as a salad. It was flavored with garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. The raw garlic destroyed any taste of the dandelion greens, if there was any, so it’s hard for me to describe it. Once or twice I would come across a bit that was quite bitter like an extra strong rocket leaf. My best guess is that that was the original taste of the dandelion without the interference of garlic.

Fear Factor – 1 / Taste Test – 6

Huitlacoche

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Huitlacoche, also known as “corn smut” is basically a diseased corn. Much the same as some fungi that are harmful on digestion, others can be eaten. This sick corn turns black and rather soft and is said to be similar in taste to truffles.

I found huitlacoche on the menu at Ametsa restaurant in London, a Michelin starred restaurant that’s affiliated with the famous Arzak restaurant in Spain. The corn product came as a condiment to a roast chicken dish. Being a lover of all things truffle, the choice of a main course was made in a split second.

On first appearance the huitlacoche brought something unusual to the place. Black as not a color that’s used often in food as it represents rotting. There was no strong smell to it, as there is with truffle, and on tasting there was no strong flavor either. Sure, there was a distinct taste of corn, but nothing out of the ordinary as had been promised to me.

If it hadn’t been for the color, it would have been just another piece of corn. I will say though that the texture of the corn kernels was much softer than regular corn.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 6