The Lotus Eaters

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IMG_4284One of the things I like best about working on this cookbook is that it gives me a concrete excuse to be a Korean food evangelist. I get to share funny, odd ingredients—though not as much if I were cooking Chinese food, to be sure—and argue passionately that they are delicious and worth eating.  It’s a lot more fun than arguing about jurisdiction to a judge.

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For example, Exhibit A: lotus root.

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The lotus, the flower you see on yoga mats everywhere, actually has an edible root, or more technically, a rhizome.  It doesn’t look like much, but when it’s sliced, it reveals a beautiful pattern of perforation, simple but sweet like a first-grader’s handmade snowflake.  I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never eaten it raw, but I do know that even when cooked, it retains its crunchy yet light texture, falling somewhere between a water chestnut and a jicama.  It takes flavors well, like a potato, but you could never mistake it for anything other than what it is.

Korean groceries in the U.S. will often sell them only shrink-wrapped in plastic or otherwise preserved.  The Han Ah Reum on 32nd St. sells lotus root that’s technically “fresh,” but it looks like crap and costs a lot.  Luckily, the Chinese seem to be eating quite a lot of lotus root as well, because it’s abundant in New York’s Chinatown and cheap!

My mom likes to use lotus root in making vinegar pickles with muh radish and Asian pear, but the most popular form for eating yeongeun is probably 연근조림, yeongeun-jorim, glazed and candied to a high gloss and then tossed with nutty sesame oil and sesame seeds.

Like with many jorim dishes, the goal is to end up with a dish that is both salty and sweet, that takes as well to a bowl of white rice as to snacking with liquor.  (Lotus root makes a particularly good anju or bar snack, since it supposedly has hangover prevention powers.)  All jorim is made by cooking the ingredients, whether it’s beef or lotus root, over medium-low heat in liquid flavored with soy sauce, sugar, and syrup.  The pan is left uncovered, and whatever’s inside gets stirred and stirred until the sauce has been completely reduced and all that’s left is a bright, shiny dish.  The shine is very important—it’s why so many Korean dishes call for cooking syrup, traditionally made out of grains but now mainly made out of American corn.  If Michael Pollan is getting to you, don’t substitute the corn syrup with sugar.  Try honey or look for syrups in Korean groceries that are made out of barley.

Glazed lotus root

Ingredients:

  • 2 lotus roots
  • 1 T. oil
  • 1 t. minced garlic
  • 3 T. soy sauce
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1 T. syrup or honey
  • water
  • dash of vinegar
  • 1 T. sesame oil
  • 1 T. sesame seeds
  1. Peel and slice the lotus root into slices about ½ an inch thick.  As you cut the slices, put them in a bowl of cold water with a dash of vinegar.  This will keep them from discoloring.
  2. Heat the oil and minced garlic in pan on medium heat for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant.
  3. Add the lotus root slices and sautee vigorously for about 5 minutes.
  4. Then add to the pan half a cup of water, one tablespoon soy sauce, and one tablespoon sugar.  Mix thoroughly and keep tossing the lotus roots in the sauce so that they get evenly coated and browned.  The sauce should be simmering, not at a very low simmer but more a low boil.  When the sauce has reduced to about 2 tablespoons, add the remaining two tablespoons of soy sauce and one tablespoon of syrup or honey.  Again, mix thoroughly so that the soy sauce and sugar evenly coat all the slices.
  5. Keep stirring until the sauce has completely reduced.  It will take about 20 minutes form when the lotus roots began cooking.  Taste a little piece and add a little extra sugar or soy sauce if necessary.
  6. Add a tablespoon each of sesame oil and sesame seeds and toss thoroughly.  Or, if you want to decorate the lazy way I do, pile up the lotus root slices on a serving dish without the sesame seeds and then sprinkle them right on top, focusing on the peak of the pile.  It’s oddly appealing, don’t you think?
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