Flower power

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As Vietnam begins to blossom, consider incorporating a bit of springtime into your diet

Hoa thiên lý
(Tonkin creeper flowers) is among Vietnam's popular floral cooking ingredients

Western diners rarely encounter flowers on their dinner plates.

Every now and again, a few bitter petals get sprinkled on a salad. Beyond that, they are typically absent from the table.

In Vietnam, flowers play an exalted role in cookery. They're eaten nearly every day, adding a tart crunch to the noodles and salads served in restaurants and street stalls throughout Ho Chi Minh City.

In the south, hoa sen (lotuses), hoa thiên lý (Tonkin creeper flowers), and hoa chuối (shredded banana blossoms) are eaten throughout the year.

Whether stir fried in garlic, or added raw to soups and broths - all are believed to hold natural health benefits.

Sweet and sour salad

Bông su Ä‘âu (neem flower) is a common salad made out of small white flowers that are prominent, in southern India and Vietnam, during the springtime.

They can also be dried and re-used throughout the year, without significant loss of flavor.

The fragrant blossoms add a distinct sour tang to any dish.

To make the salad, the flowers and young petals are parboiled and added to shreds of dried gourami or snakehead fish. The fish and flowers are then tossed with fresh onion shreds and julienned mango, yielding a delectable mix of flavors and textures.

The salad is then drenched in a sauce made from nuoc mam (fish sauce) tamarind, sugar and chili.

Ideally, the distinct sourness of the neem flowers is offset by the tart sweetness of the sauce.

Mud carp stew

Ho Chi Minh City is home to a restaurant which specializes in preparing drinks and sweets tinged with the distinctive flower flavors:

8/11 Le Thanh Ton Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1
Tel: (08) 7 300 8957
Mobile: 0122 263 5606

Every spring, the Mekong Delta blooms in a brilliant array of delectable condiments that includes Tokin jasmine, neem flower and agati.

Bông so Ä‘ũa (agati or Sesbania grandiflora) is a tropical flower native to the region that has since spread to tropical regions all over the world.

In the Delta, the tree can often be found growing between rice paddies.

Agati blooms in both white and purple; the flowers' initial bitterness quickly gives way to sweetness, on the palate.

Both foliage and flowers contain a toxin poisonous to fish.

Ironically, the blossoms make for a wonderful mud carp stew.

The mud carp's earthy flavors dissipate in rich tamarind-based broth; the flowers are added at the end of the cooking cycle, to ensure they retain a mild crispness.

Cilantro, fried garlic and slices of chili add a fresh flavor to this meal. In general, agati flowers make for a wonderful addition to any fish dish.

Healthy, no matter what

Among Vietnam's floral cooking ingredients, the prickly purple artichoke blooms are considered among the most esteemed.

Artichoke flowers are used in teas that are said to aid to digestion, strengthen the liver and gall bladder, and diminish the risk for heart diseases.

The belief in the flower's health advantages are not diminished even when it's stewed with pork leg (or beef marrow bones) or stir-fried with mushrooms.

The sweets

Flowers also make for excellent dessert items, throughout the country.

Roses are commonly combined with rice, millet seed, honey and longan to produce delicious and delicate after-dinner sweets.

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