The calendar may designate three full months for the season of spring, but if you ask me, spring happens in a flash. Overnight, the barren winter world becomes ablaze in little buds and bursts of color: here’s a blur of blue bonnets! A dash of daffodils! A tumult of tulips! Then, just as quickly and efficiently, the buds and blooms get replaced with the hardy leaves of green that settle in for the slog of summer.
Spring is fleeting. And in the world of Chinese herbs, nothing represents ephemeral spring quite as perfectly as the fresh lily bulb. Lilies are the essence of spring, if you think about it. During Easter, lilies festoon church altars because they symbolize resurrection, renewal, new life, and purity. In Asia, the bulb of the lily is considered a gourmet delicacy and has long been a part of traditional cuisine in China, Japan, and Korea. In years past, only dried versions of the lily bulb were easy to find, but with the increase of demand, fresh lily bulbs can now be found during the spring and summer seasons, vacuum-sealed and clustered onto the corner shelves of Chinese supermarkets. Vacuum sealed, it’s like preserved spring time.
Although there are many species of lily with edible bulbs, the ones most commonly grown for food in China are Lilium brownii, Lilium dauricum and Lilium pumilum. Specifically, bulbs from Lilium brownii, which has the classic white trumpet shaped flowers, are the ones usually found in the markets. The bulbs are grown throughout the northern and central regions of China. Arguably, the sweetest tasting bulbs are grown in the mountains of Lan Zhou in Gan Su Province in the north. You can find them vacuum packed in blue plastic with red characters designating it as the Lan Zhou Lily (兰州百合). I found mine at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
In the Chinese language, lily bulbs are called Bai He (百合), which translates to “a hundred embraces” or “a hundred meetings” because each bulb contains a cluster of white “petals” overlapping one another. From a distance, the bulbs look like heads of garlic. But come close and you’ll find that they fall apart in a confetti of creamy white petals when they’re cut.
Lily bulb petals have a crunchy texture and a refreshingly light, sweet taste, making them perfect for salads and other warm weather fare. They can be eaten raw, stir-fried, or added into sweet or savory soups. If cooked for long, they’ll dissolve into the other foods, so keep the cooking time brief and add them in at the very end if you have a long cooking time.
Dried lily bulb petals (pictured on the left) are gnarled, brown-ish and have more than just a faint resemblance to a cackling witch’s fingernails. Prep-wise, they’re not much fuss and just need a quick rinse before cooking. Like their fresh counterparts, they can be stir-fried, steamed or added in soups. Because “bai he” also sounds like the Chinese words for “a hundred years harmony”, the dried version is often used in traditional dessert wedding soups, simmered with red dates, lotus seeds and dried longan as a sweet ending to celebrations.
Traditional Chinese Medicine-wise, lily bulbs are well regarded for being sweet and slightly bitter, with a slightly cool energetic temperature. That makes lily bulbs well suited for nourishing yin and calming the spirit. Medicinally, they are great for soothing lung-related issues to relieve coughing, asthma, or lung congestion (by being a helpful expectorant). As for its calming nature, traditional texts show that lily bulbs are used to treat yin deficiency of the heart. These symptoms usually manifest as insomnia, heart palpitations, absent-mindedness, or irritability.
For my lily bulb spring salad, I thought I would make a simple medley honoring the flavors and textures of of spring: grassy spears of asparagus, crunchy sugar snap peas, peppery slivers of radish, pungent shavings of salty Parmesan cheese, and of course, a generous scattering of sweet lily bulb petals. Toss with lemon juice, olive oil and a healthy twist of pepper and salt and you’ve got a salad that is equal parts sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent.
Prepare the lily bulbs, by cutting off the dirty ends and gently separating the petals. Rinse off any soil and debris. While you’re at it, go ahead and rinse the asparagus, sugar snap peas, and radishes. Chop off the woody ends of the asparagus and de-string the pea pods, if needed. I pulled out my trusty mandoline to make paper-thin slices out of the radishes.
My favorite method of salad-making is by way of blanching. By submerging the veggies in boiling water and then plunging them into an ice cold bath, you get vibrant colored veggies that retain their crunch yet also manage to be tender and at their sweetest.
Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil, then add in the asparagus stalks, sugar snap pea pods and lily bulb petals. Keep it in for approximately a minute, watching for the asparagus and pea pods to turn a vibrant shade of green, then automatically drain over a colander and plunge into a bath of ice water. This stops the ingredients from over-cooking and preserves the salad at their most saturated hue.
Drain again, then toss with the radish slices, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add some shavings of Parmesan cheese for the finishing touch. Voila! Spring time in a mouthful.
FRESH LILY BULB SPRING SALAD
Makes 3-4 servings
2 fresh lily bulbs
1 pound sugar snap peas
½ bundle thin or medium asparagus stalks
4-5 red radishes
Juice and zest from one
3 tablespoons olive oil
Parmesan, shaved, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
- Trim and clean the lily bulbs, separating the petals from the bulb in the process. Remove any soil or debris.
- Rinse off the asparagus, sugar snap pea pods and radishes.
- Slice off the woody ends of the asparagus stalks. You may need to peel the stalks if they are medium to thick. You can forgo this if they are thin. Cut the stalks in halves or thirds.
- De-string the sugar snap pea pods, if necessary.
- Using a mandoline slicer or knife, slice the radishes into paper thin discs.
- Bring a sauce pan of salted water to a boil. Blanche the lily bulb petals, sugar snap peas, and asparagus stalks for roughly a minute. Drain, then plunge in a bowl of ice water. Drain again and blot dry.
- In a salad bowl, toss together the petals, peas, and asparagus with the slices radishes. Toss in the lemon zest, olive oil and lemon juice.
- Shave slivers of Parmesan cheese over the salad and finish up with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Enjoy!