Taiwanese food is always attractive to me because this regional cuisine is so rare in the United States. Taiwan, which the U.S. recognizes as one of two places called China (the other being the People’s Republic of China), has a cuisine similar to that of mainland China, and it’s challenging to distinguish one cuisine from the other. Lotus root salad, one of the best things I ate in 2021, is identified with both the island of Taiwan and mainland China. Either way, it’s kinda exotic.
This past September, we were visiting our daughter Lydia, and she took us to Joy, a Taiwanese restaurant in Los Angeles. At Joy, we had a lotus root salad, and it blew my mind: it was so crisp and refreshing, dressed only with a hot chili sauce, a beautiful balance of cool vegetable and moderately hot chilies.
The lotus holds a place of importance in Asian spiritual practices. If you’ve done yoga, you’re familiar with the lotus position, and Buddha is often portrayed seated below or upon a lotus flower. Buddha even compared himself to a lotus flower saying, “Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world.”
The background of the lotus, fascinating as it may be, is for many of us secondary to its taste. So what does lotus root taste like? Much like jicama, the crunchy white tuber popular in Mexican cuisine, lotus root is also crunchy and white, with a slight sweetness that helps it pair well with spicy condiments. Before our trip to Joy in L.A., we’d had lotus root primarily in Asian soups, usually limp and grey, not bad but just … meh. Having the fresh lotus root parboiled and chilled was a revelation, with textures and tastes that you don’t detect in the cooked versions of the root.
Here’s how Carolyn made lotus root salad at home:
Skin two or three lotus root bulbs
Cut each bulb into one-quarter-inch thin slices
Blanch lotus root slices in boiling water for one minute or so, just to soften them a little, being careful not to overcook, and then plunge them into ice water to chill
Pat dry each slice of lotus root and sprinkle with a mixture of one-third salt and two-thirds sugar, and allow to rest for 30 minutes or so
Drain and toss the lotus root slices with spicy crisp chili sauce, shredded ginger, a splash of roasted sesame oil and rice vinegar
Chill in the refrigerator for as little as 30 minutes or as long as several hours, and serve.
We like to add the spicy crisp chili sauce because it complements the lightly sweet roots, but you can add other condiments if you like.
We had the lotus root salad with a shrimp stir fry. A flavor as delicate as that of the lotus root seems to do best with milder flavors, like seafood, chicken, and vegetable.
Lotus root is not expensive, and it’s sold in segmented strands that look a little like sausage. We bought ours at Joong Boo Market, with three locations in Chicago, and it’s also readily available in grocery stores all over Chinatown.