Exploring how flowers elevate culinary creations: Tips and Tricks

15 May,2024 02:23 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Flowers have been used for the longest time in food not only in India but around the world. With the May flower in full bloom, we go in search for restaurants making use of the flower, popularly known as the Gulmohar, and other flowers in their food that are beyond decorative purposes

Mumbai chefs are using different kinds of flowers beyond the classic rose, not only in their desserts but also savoury dishes and drinks. Photo Courtesy: Special Arrangement

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Using flowers in food like desserts and drinks that are not only cocktails but also mocktails is not new but experiments with them have certainly evolved over time. Appearing on the plate in all shades of blue, orange, pink, purple and red, their role certainly goes beyond the aesthetics of the dish. It can be seen with how the rose, which is considered the queen of flowers, is used in a variety of dishes in India. While the petals were used earlier, they are now dehydrated to add a different touch. Chef Sanket Joshi, who is the head chef at Avatara in Juhu, explains, "Flowers are primarily used in food for the appearance and garnish to dress up the dish. There are certain flowers that also elevate the flavours of the dish."

The chef has been using flowers to create dishes since 2014 starting with his time at Tresind and then Avatara and now even Carnival depending on their flavour and taste. Today, the menu of the restaurant in Juhu, boasts of not one or two but as many as eight dishes that feature flowers of different kinds. While the Dianthus is used in the dish uniquely named Naivedhya like all other dishes on the menu. It includes others like Sun Hemp is used in Alpahara (okra), Red Oxalis leaves and Dianthus are used in Shikhalu, Egyptian star flowers are used in Grinjanah, Cosmos Yellow Sulfar in Panasa, and Nasturtium in Subhanjana. "The Dianthus is sweet and balances Naivedhya and Nasturtium has more peppery flavour which blends perfectly with Subhanjana," explains Joshi.

The May flower tree, more popularly known as the Gulmohar tree, is currently in full bloom with its fiery orange and red petals adding colour to every other neighbourhood in Mumbai. Its name is distinct and may often be mistaken to depict all the other flowers that bloom during the summer in May - often called May flowers. Flowers have been eaten by people around the world for a long time and Indians are no different as they have also been using it in different kinds of dishes in their homes. Interestingly, Mumbai restaurants aren't far behind as they have been using many different kinds along with the exotic varieties like elderflower that became a rage a few years ago. However, how many of them use the May flower?

Role of flowers in food and drink
Mid-day.com decided to ask as many as we could but the use of Gulmohar flowers seems to be elusive, even as they make use of other kinds of flowers to add a touch of colour, flavour, aroma and taste to their dishes and Joshi is one of many experimenting with them. He explains, "No, we haven't experimented with May flowers yet but if I had to use them, the dish Corn Shikalu on the menu would go perfectly with the flavours of May flowers, which are spicy and acidic in nature."

Owing to this very nature, even chef Sarfaraz Ahmed, who is the India corporate chef at Passion F&B, has also not experimented with May flower just yet, says he would pair it with corn. Making another version of a corn dish - Corn 65 with May flowers. Till they go to the drawing board to conjure up a suitable recipe, Ahmed says they use flowers extensively in their menus and keep experimenting with them for their menus at Tresind and Carnival.

Even they use a similar bunch of flowers like Joshi, Ahmed and his team use them differently. For example, they use Dianthus for their Channa Jor Garam and Paneer Pathuri, Egyptian star flowers in a Dal Vadi, Cosmos Yellow Sulfar for the Kale Salad, Nasturtium leaves in Duck Croquettes, Channa Jor Garam, Avocado Galouti, and coriander as crisps in Champaran Carnitas, Patatas Bravas, Mushroom Pot Rice - showcasing the diversity of how flowers can be used to add unique flavours to dishes.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, Saz Mumbai not only uses flowers in their food but also in their cocktails but the use of May flowers still seems to be one that they have to embark on. While Vishal, who is the head mixologist for the city restaurant, uses hibiscus in his flower themed Hibiscus Plum Sour, he also uses Rose in a delicious Rose Martini and Jasmine in an aromatic Jasmine Highball. Interestingly, playing around with flowers has been an interesting experience for the Mumbaikar, who hasn't looked back ever since he was introduced to elderflower syrup and their use in cocktails. "Flowers give a floral note and great mouthfeel and a hint of bitterness to the cocktails," explains Vishal.

On the other hand, chef Eddie Jose, who conjures up dishes at SAZ Café, was first introduced to flowers in food by his mentor in 2016 for a special menu. The chef was immediately amazed by the idea that it has caught his attention and interest since then and now translated into his food. Having always being intrigued by their ability to influence dishes, the chef uses Zucchini blossoms in the Herbed Ricotta, which is stuffed zucchini blossom fritters with saffron and pumpkin hummus; he also uses dried Osmanthus flower in his Roasted Beetroot Carpaccio with spiced frosted walnuts and osmanthus honey glaze. Jose says, "flowers have a very delicate flavour profile which provides aromatic notes to the food while also contributing a subtle sweetness to maybe a little tanginess to the end product."

Popularity of flowers in food
In all this time, he has incorporated them into his food, the Mumbai-based chef has seen most Indian desserts tend to have rose water as an essential part of it, and even use dehydrated rose petals as a garnish. The chef adds, "It is very popular in India not only in desserts but a lot of parts of the country use flowers in their food especially in teas like jasmine, moringa flower or hibiscus."

Eddie's observations are seen in the fact that Tushar Bhattacharya, who is the senior sous chef, ITC Maratha Mumbai in Andheri, says the five-star property makes a delicious Gulab ka Kheer from roses, while also serving a refreshing cup of Hibiscus tea. "The use of flowers is gaining prominence, as it contributes to some distinct flavours and also looks good as garnish," shares the chef, who has grown up in a home that uses flowers in their food. "Being a Bengali, moringa flowers were used extensively at home," he adds.

It is also why he says the best places to start using flowers are in salads, desserts, beverages and sauces. The latter of which, he says, is how he would use the May flower in food. "I have not worked with May flowers till now. However, I am given to understand it has a musty flavour which will go well in sauces. I would like to add it to a nice demi-glace."

Just like Bhattacharya and every other chef this writer spoke to, chef Amandeep Singh, who is the executive sous chef at The Westin Mumbai Garden City, says they haven't explored May flowers till now. He shares, "We haven't experimented extensively with May flowers in our culinary creations due to various reasons, such as availability, flavour profile compatibility with our existing menu, or simply not having explored the culinary potential of May flowers yet." However, if they would make a dish, Singh says exploring a floral infused dessert such as a May flower-infused sorbet or a delicate May flower and vanilla bean cake sounds like the perfect idea; this may just be the start of something interesting for chefs.

Currently, the Mumbai chef celebrates roses by making Rose-infused macarons. Beyond that, the menu showcases the goodness of flowers in unique variations such as Lavender lemonade, Jasmine tea-infused panna cotta, Marigold and mango salad and Pansy petal cupcakes too. "Flowers add a subtle sweetness or floral note to dishes, enhancing their overall taste and aroma. Additionally, they contribute to the visual appeal of the dishes, making them more aesthetically pleasing," adds Singh, while highlighting how upscale restaurants and gourmet dining experiences are instrumental in making them more popular today.
Even Joshi has observed the boom over the years with flowers being incorporated at various restaurants not only in their desserts but also in appetisers and main course dishes. It is a stark contrast from the time that people had misconceptions that flowers were being used only for decoration and appearance, he says. Joshi sums it up by saying, "There is an appreciation among the guests when they learn that the flower is edible. It often comes as a surprise but upon learning how it brings the dish together, it is utterly fascinating for them."

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