Monday, April 15, 2013

Dining on lily bulbs Buddhist style

Of all the many dishes we ate in lovely Lanzhou in Gansu province – right at the headwaters of the Yellow River – this was the most memorable. Just before we set sail to visit a Buddhist shrine upriver, we ate at a Buddhist restaurant. Everything was vegetarian, of course, but even more importantly everything was  the Chinese word for super-strict vegetarian that includes no garlic or chilies or onions or ginger or anything else that could be considered an addictive flavor.

Now, I am a proud chilihead, and I don’t get that shaky when deprived of my peppers, as long as it’s not more than a day or two. Really, I’m fine. And yet, could see how someone striving for Nirvana would want to put any earthly desires to one side, including all of the aromatics I reach for automatically whenever I’m cooking.

Be that as it may, dishes that highlight only the natural flavors of a few ingredients can sometimes be magical. Take this one, for example. It is simple in every way and yet quite beautiful, the bright red berries shining against the ivory petals of the lily bulbs. They glisten with only a bare sheen of oil, and a subtle shake of salt provides the barest whisper of savoriness against the delicate sour and sweet notes.

The bulbs all cleaned up & snowy
The most difficult ingredient to find here are the lily bulbs. They come into season only in late fall and are imported from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. Yes, they are available dried, but don’t even think about using them here because dried bulbs are starchy and flat-tasting. 

If you see the fresh ones in a Chinese market any time of the year, snap as many of them up as you can. Then, use half for this dish and plant the other half… they grow easily in almost any temperate climate, and soon you will be able to revel in them whenever you choose.

Lily bulbs and wolfberries 
Bǎihé chǎo gōuqĭ 百合炒枸杞 
Serves 4 to 6 

¼ cup organic dried wolfberries (gouqi or goji, see Tips)
Boiling water as needed
4 fresh Lanzhou lily bulbs, about 10 to 12 ounces total (see Tips)
1 tablespoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1. Place the wolfberries in a medium heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let the berries plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

The good, bad, & ugly
2. Prepare the lily bulbs by first using a paring knife to trim off any roots or discolored areas. Working on one bulb at a time, hold it over a colander and gently peel off the “petals” of the lily bulb until you cannot peel off any more; cut the center in half or quarters. Repeat with the other bulbs until they are all separated into petals. Rinse the petals under cool running water and lightly toss them over the sink to remove most of the water. Pick over the petals and nip off any discolored bits.

3. Drain the wolfberries, straining out the liquid into a measuring cup, and if you have less than ¼ cup of the soaking liquid, add just enough water to reach that mark.

4. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat and add the salt. Swirl the wok around to melt the salt and then add the wolfberries, the soaking liquid, and the lily bulb petals. Quickly stir-fry them over high heat only until the liquid boils. Taste one of the petals: it should be cooked and sweet but still crisp. Serve hot or warm.


Do not use any other variety of lily bulb for this dish other than those that come from Lanzhou lilies, as not all lilies are edible. The Latin name for the Lanzhou lily is Lilium davidii, and they look very much like tiger lilies when in bloom.

Select the most perfect ones you can
Most of these lily bulbs will be sold in small plastic bags, as shown to the right. Look at them carefully through the tiny window and select only those that are pure white; less pretty ones will be jammed into the back of the bag out of sight, of course, but do the best you can. I always buy more than I need, as noted above in the headnotes, both to compensate for the inevitable bad bulb or two, and also to have more to plant.

Dried lily bulb petals are also sold in Chinese markets, but please do not use them here! They turn starchy and tasteless when they are dried, which is fine for slow-cooked things, but here the crunch and the sweetness of the fresh bulbs are absolutely essential.

Wolfberries are called gouqi in Chinese and goji in Japanese. Use caution when purchasing them from Chinese markets, as some are dyed red or have been subjected to heavy pesticides or pollution.

I prefer to get my gouqi from either a good Chinese herbalist or from reputable health food stores. Organic wolfberries are becoming increasingly available, too.

Select berries that are plump, the color of ripe persimmons, and as large as possible. Check for insect infestation by shaking the bag around, and discard any that show holes or that have dark, round dust (= insect poop) at the bottom. Store them in a freezer bag in the freezer if you are not using them within a month or two, as this will keep them fresh.

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