In Homer’s great epic the Odyssey, the eponymous hero begins his account of his extraordinary adventures in the aftermath of the Trojan War with the tale of how he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms to a land whose inhabitants lived on the food of a certain flower. So overwhelmingly delectable was this comestible that those who partook of it abandoned thoughts of any other matters: all they wished to do was continue savoring its utterly exquisite flavor. After some of his crew sampled the delicacy, Odysseus had to resort to physical force to get them back onboard ship, and those men wept bitterly at no longer being able to eat the lotus.
Largely through its associations with Buddhism, the flower of the lotus is certainly familiar in the West, though the fact that parts of the plant can in fact be consumed is probably rather less known. The lotus is not native to Japan, but it has been grown in the country since prehistoric times. And though with its slightly nutty flavor and crisp texture, the lotus root certainly does have more than a few aficionados in Japan, it tends not to inspire quite the same rampant devotion as it did among Odysseus’s crew.
With a flavor and consistency perhaps closest to water chestnuts, the root (more correctly, rhizome) of the lotus is the part that is most commonly eaten. However, other parts of the plant are edible. The flowers are used to flavor tea, and the young leaves can be eaten as a green vegetable or used to wrap other foods for roasting or steaming. Its seeds can be roasted, eaten fresh or ground for use as a confectionery filling.
In the Japanese kitchen, cooks employ the versatile lotus root to add a pleasingly crisp texture to many dishes. Lotus root works well in refreshing salads and is very good in vinegared dishes. Thinly sliced, it makes excellent tempura, and the vegetable also finds a place in simmered dishes.
Lotus plants are commonly seen in ponds and fields throughout Japan, but their original spread across the country had little to do with culinary virtues. It was not until Heian times (794–1185) that lotus root began to be appreciated as a fine acquisition for the table—and then it was only the aristocracy that possessed the wherewithal to do the appreciating. From around the end of the sixth century, as Buddhism began to flourish in Japan so did lotus plants, notably in the grounds of Buddhist temples.
Buddhism’s symbolic fondness for the lotus derives from the fact that from the sludge and mud of the bottom of a pond, the plant emerges and produces unsullied flowers of extraordinary beauty. The lotus thus represents a kind of spiritual purity, and it is seen as demonstrating the human capacity to rise beyond the evils of this world and attain the sphere of enlightenment.
The lotus plant has round waxy leaves on long stalks that usually stand up to a meter above the water—often with such density that a lotus pond looks as though it is covered by a canopy of bright-green umbrellas. The flowers consist of numerous sepals and petals and appear in various shades of light pink. Each flower blooms for only two or three days, but the beds are in bloom for around six weeks in the hot, humid dog days of July and August.
Probably the most charming literary effort to emerge from the above-mentioned Heian period was The Pillow Book, a collection of observations and musings compiled by the court lady Sei Shonagun. An appealing feature of that book is the lists of various aspects of life that caught the attention of this very astute woman. And among her list of a dozen or so “Adorable Things” she found a place for the lotus. In addition to citing “Duck eggs,” “Wild pinks” and “The face of a child drawn on a melon” as adorable items, Sei Shonagun mentions this: “One picks up a tiny lotus leaf that is floating on a pond and examines it. Not only lotus leaves, but little hollyhock flowers, and indeed all small things, are most adorable.”
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
This story first appeared in the August 2012 print edition of The Japan Journal. First published on TJJ Online Aug. 17, 2018. Reposted Aug. 2019, Aug. 2020, July 2021.