Did you know that some flowers, specially winter annuals, are not too bad for a nibble? Take nasturtium, for instance. These hardy, prolific plants that drive away aphids and several other pests, also give you flowers and seeds that you can chew on. I do feel guilty at times for plucking flowers to munch on, but the pangs vanished the day a gardener informed me that nipping off the early blooms only ensures an abundant bouquet later.
Nasturtium leaves and flowers are great to spice up a winter salad. One or two flowers look good and taste better chopped up and tossed into raita. And the green seeds make an economical substitute for capers. Pickle them in vinegar.
Have I tried them? Of course. And they came to me with impeccable credentials: Bunny Gupta, co-author of ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ and author of several other books and articles, gave me a jar of them some years ago after a fabulous lunch in Kalimpong. Now, she’s a gourmet whose table is a joy to sit at. When we oohed and aahed over the salad, she promptly handed us a bottle of pickled nasturtium seeds. Faux capers, as I call them.
In fact, you can take that further. Flavour vinegar with a few leaves and flowers of nasturtium and a clove or two of garlic. In just about a month, you’ll have a piquant herb vinegar ready.
Roses, as most of us know, are edible. They complement desserts beautifully with colour and aroma. Just pinch off the white half moon from each petal before use. You could also freeze the petals in ice trays for interesting, flavoured ice cubes.
If you have planted peas, you could give up on some of the vegetable for the flowers. The flowers are mild in flavour and taste… well, like peas. So, these flowers are best used as garnishing, where they are needed in very small quantities. Living in cities, most of us have forgotten that people have been eating flowers for centuries. The Romans ate them as did the Chinese. The Indians ate them, too. And I don’t mean broccoli and cauliflower.
We still eat our neem flowers as the ‘teto’ or signature bitter start to a Bengali meal. Friends reeled off an entire list: the white ‘bok phool’, flowers of the drumstick, day lilies and the ‘mocha’, which is the spadix or flower of the plantain. And pumpkin flowers find their way to the table in various forms: some as ‘thoran’, others as pakora. In the vegetable garden, look for flowers of onion, garlic and leeks. They carry much the same flavour as the leaves and roots but look rather different when cooked.
But do remember one vital fact: If you are eating parts of plants specially in a salad, it is best to have grown them at home so that you know they have not been sprayed with chemicals and been fed only on organic fertilizer and leaf mould. Wash them thoroughly and pat dry with a clean cloth.
Nor should you experiment with flowers. Eat only what you are sure about. Several flowers can set off hay fever or even make you alarmingly sick. If you’re a beginner, go slow. Start with a tiny nibble. Make sure you’re not allergic to the flower. And admire the rest.