Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lotus chips

Just like most people, I love potato chips. But now I have a bag of something much better sitting on my counter: chips made out of thinly sliced lotus roots. These are not only tasty... they are also absolutely beautiful. Plus, they have the faint flavor of the lotus in them, which makes them extra special.

Lotuses are important throughout most of China, where they grow in ponds and send forth great stalks topped with enormous, gorgeously scented flowers. Walking by a lotus pond in midsummer when the cicadas are whirring, the dragonflies are hovering like jewels, and the fragrance from the ponds wrapping me in a fragrant reverie is one of the most cherished of my memories of life in China.

Wafer thin and crispy
The Chinese are practical people, though, and adore eating, so these intensely beautiful plants are also grown also for their leaves to be used as wrappers, as well as their seeds and roots, which are actually amazing rhizomes. Interestingly enough, both the seeds and the roots are starchy, and Chinese cuisine has taken excellent advantage of that, transforming them into fascinating foods that dazzle the eye, as well as the palate.

A few months ago I introduced Jiangsu's Sweet Stuffed Lotus Roots, which takes one ingenious approach to cooking with these lacy rhizomes and filling just the holes. Other areas, like Hubei province, slice the roots into discs that are then sandwiched with a meaty filling before being fried. Totally delicious, and we will be certain to do that one of these days.

But the dish we are going to look at today is really unusual. It might be considered nouvelle Chinese, as I've never seen it in a traditional meal other than, say, a few little chips garnishing something meaty. 

What I did was to treat the lotus roots just like potatoes: peeling and frying them into ethereally light chips that go well with things like fried chicken or fish (think Chinese fish and chips), and can easily be served along side some cold beer as a bar snack.
Fry til golden

These are super simple to make and can be prepared days ahead of a party. Just fry them, cool on paper towels to absorb any extra oil, and then store in a resealable plastic bag. As long as they have no contact with moisture (including air), they will stay fresh for up to a week.

A mandoline is extremely handy here for cutting the roots up into wafer-thin slices. What I do is trim of the end of one root and leave the other end on as a handle; then, I just shave the root into as many slices as possible until I reach the other end. Since the ends are nice and hard, they make very practical handles! Of course, as with all sharp blades, use care when slicing things on a mandoline, as they can cut up fingers in a flash.

The oil does not have to be fresh from the bottle for this; as long as it has no smells (such as from fish) and doesn't have a stale aroma, used oil should work fine. Use whatever kind of salt you like, plus a sprinkle of spices, if you wish.

One odd thing about lotus roots that you should be aware of is that they produce a hairlike juice. I mean, really, they look like very fine hairs and will stay that way even when the slices are fried. So don't be alarmed if you see what looks like blond hairs weaving in and out of the chips; totally harmless.

Perfect with cold Chinese beer
Fried lotus chips 
Zha oupian 炸藕片 
Vegetarian cuisine

Fresh lotus roots (see Tips)
Peanut or vegetable oil
Sea salt, fleur de sel, or kosher salt

1. Peel the lotus roots with a potato peeler, and remove any soft or brown spots. Rinse off any mud that might have worked its way into the roots (see Tips). Shave the roots into thin slices using a mandoline or a very sharp knife.

2. Prepare a plate covered with a paper towel next to the stove. Heat a few inches of oil in a wok over medium-high heat until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil bubbles all over. Add a handful of the lotus root slices to the hot oil and stir them around with the chopsticks so that they don't stick to each other. Stir and fry them until they are a light golden brown all over. Use a slotted spoon to remove them from the oil and place them on the paper towel to drain. Sprinkle the hot chips with the salt to taste. Repeat with the rest of the lotus root slices until done.

3. Cool to room temperature and either serve immediately or store in a resealable plastic bag, preferably with a paper towel to absorb any moisture or extra oil.

Sliced fresh lotus root

Choose firm, white lotus roots that have no bruises and are heavy for their size, which means that they are fresh and juicy.

Try to avoid any roots that have holes in them where mud could have worked its way in. Once in, it is hard to clean it thoroughly off the inside of the roots and will stain the lacy structure.

Store the fresh roots in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel; use them as soon as possible.


  1. These are, indeed, very tasty and a favorite of children, too! I try not to get splashed at with oil through the lotus root holes... very tricky when you are frying them!

  2. I found that if the lotus root slices were dry and the oil wasn't too hot, spattering could be kept to a minimum since there wouldn't be much moisture to explode. However, I agree, care should always be taken when deep frying foods!