The lotus plant is a member of the water lily family that grows in tropical regions throughout Asia. The plant either grows wild in ponds or is cultivated in flooded fields similar to rice. Almost all parts of the plant, including the white or pink flowers and buds, leaves, and seeds are edible. However, the root, also called the rhizome, is the part most commonly eaten in China, Japan, and other Asian countries. The root is a symbol of purity and life and is traditionally candied and served during Chinese New Year celebrations.
The lotus root is smooth and off-white in color like a parsnip. It can grow to be four feet long and two inches wide. The center of the root is filled with many air holes that help the plant stay buoyant in water. These holes create an attractive, symmetric pattern when the root is sliced crosswise. The slices look like snowflakes or Swiss cheese and make an interesting visual addition to a stir fry or salad.
The best place to find lotus root is in an Asian market. The root is generally available year-round, with the best specimens found from July to February. When purchasing lotus root, look for firm pieces without bruises or blemishes. The root can be stored in a cool pantry like potatoes, but it has a shorter shelf life. Lotus root is also commonly found canned or dried. Lotus root flour may be found at specialty stores.
The lotus root has a starchy, crunchy flesh with a mild, sweet flavor similar to artichokes. The root can be eaten raw or cooked. Be careful when you slice the root, as exposed flesh will quickly discolor. Remove the skin with a knife or vegetable peeler and store sliced pieces in water with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar. If you are going to eat the root raw, allow the pieces to soak in the water for about an hour. Serve the pieces with a dip or include them in a salad. The root can be cooked by steaming, braising, or stir-frying. Thin slices can also be deep-fried like potatoes to make chips or used in tempura.
The Joy of Cooking, revised edition, 1997