The world of edible flowers is a fascinating and diverse one, with countless cultures and cuisines incorporating these delicate blooms into their dishes. From ancient traditions to modern innovations, the use of flowers in cooking is a truly global phenomenon. In this article, we'll be taking a closer look at some of the most popular flowers used in gastronomy, with a particular focus on Mexico's rich culinary heritage.
For thousands of years, saffron has been cultivated and prized for its rich, golden hue and distinctive flavor. Known as "red gold", this delicate flower is native to the Mediterranean region and is still a vital ingredient in many traditional dishes, such as the famous Spanish paella. However, saffron is also one of the most expensive spices in the world, with only the stamens of the flower being used due to its high concentration of colorant.
Another popular flower used in cooking is the clove, which is the unopened bud of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. Carefully collected and dried in the sun, these button-like flowers are essential for adding flavor to a variety of desserts. Similarly, the fragrant petals of the citrus flower, including orange and lemon blossom, are commonly used in baking recipes and are a key ingredient in the traditional Mexican bread of the dead, known as pan de muertos.
Capers, the pickled flower buds of the Capparis spinosa plant, are a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, while the artichoke, which is native to the same region, is enjoyed in a variety of dishes and preparations. Surprisingly, broccoli and cauliflower are also classified as flowers, belonging to the species Brassica oloreacea, and available in a range of colors and shapes.
In Peru, capuchins (Tropaeolum majus) are consumed, with their petals adding a tangy, peppery flavor to salads and other dishes. Meanwhile, the flower of Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine, particularly in flavored waters, and has its roots in African traditions.
All around the world, there are between 70 and 100 different types of flowers used in cooking, with Mexico boasting an impressive 50 varieties. From well-known blooms to local delicacies, the use of flowers in gastronomy is constantly evolving, with chefs and foodies alike experimenting with new ways to incorporate these colorful and fragrant ingredients into their dishes. As this trend continues to grow in popularity, we can expect to hear more about "florifagia" - the art of consuming flowers as food - in the years to come.
Edible Flowers in Mesoamerica
Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the people of Mesoamerica were already indulging in the flavors and colors of edible flowers. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, in his work Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, chronicled the use of these floral delicacies, as did the codices Florentino and de la Cruz-Badiano, and other texts and chronicles from the 16th-century. Flowers were integral to ceremonies, associated with the gods, and essential elements of festivals, many of which also possessed medicinal properties and served as colorants.
The Aztecs took this a step further by adding flowers to their cocoa drink. Magnolias, guanacastle, golden cup, and yucca flowers were among the many floral additions, while others such as pumpkin or ayoxochitl, maguey or gualungo, and bean or colorín flowers were used in savory dishes.
Today, this age-old tradition is still very much alive, thriving among indigenous cultures and even in various social circles in cities. Wild plants and flowers in Mesoamerica have long been sources of food, serving as dietary staples or supplements, much like in other tropical regions of Latin America and some African countries.
In Mexico, some flowers are considered "quelites", a Nahuatl term meaning vegetables or tender plants. Many of these are locally sourced and have been used since pre-Hispanic times, but due to a lack of awareness, are often undervalued or underutilized. These quelites come in a wide range of varieties, from the mountains and forests to the hills and deserts.
While some flowers are grown for consumption, such as pumpkin and huauzontle, most are collected from the wild, with their flowering concentrated in the rainy season. With the arrival of the Spaniards, other types of flowers, such as roses, bougainvilleas, camelinas, chrysanthemums, and orange blossoms, were introduced into recipes.
Today, we can find an array of edible flowers in Mexico, including the previously mentioned pumpkin and huauzontle, along with others that are not as widely commercialized but equally delicious. Some restaurants even offer dishes that highlight these native floral ingredients. In total, there are 23 known varieties of edible native flowers from Mexico, some dating back to pre-Hispanic times, and many more yet to be discovered.
Flowers as Functional Food
Did you know that flowers can be more than just a pretty sight? According to recent studies, these delicate beauties are low-calorie foods packed with bioactive substances that have therapeutic properties. Phenolic compounds, carotenoids, alkaloids, and steroidal saponins are just some of the phytochemicals that can be found in flowers, along with vitamins and minerals. No wonder they are now being classified as functional foods, as they offer a range of benefits that go beyond just basic nutrition.
But did you know that the color of the petals can also be an indication of the benefits they offer? For instance, yellow petals often contain carotenoids, which are not only responsible for the hue but also serve as precursors for the production of vitamin A. On the other hand, blue and purple flowers typically contain anthocyanins, compounds known for their antioxidant properties. And let's not forget the aromas - these come from the essential oils present in flowers, which also happen to contain minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron.
However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Some flowers can contain toxic compounds, such as alkaloids and saponins, which can be harmful to humans. Fortunately, techniques like cooking and sun exposure can help reduce or eliminate these substances. Additionally, certain flowers may contain anti-nutrients, which can interfere with nutrient absorption.
If you're looking for a healthy floral option, consider pumpkin flowers or wild quelites, which can be found on hills or mountains. These types of flowers often have high fiber contents, even comparable to spinach leaves. Who knew that a bouquet could also be a feast for the body?
Edible Flowers Preparation
The traditional methods of preparation coincide in, first, making cooking of a few minutes, with which the contents of antinutrients and toxins like alkaloids and saponins are reduced, others are used directly, that is, raw. Even though most flowers do not have the amounts of protein to function as nutritional food on their own, the preparation includes ingredients such as cheese, eggs, or even meat, which adds quality protein to the recipe.
The preparation coincides with many of these flowers, being the most popular Mexican style, although they can also be roasted on the comal, fried with onion and garlic, in pancakes with caldillo, stewed with egg, or added to quesadillas. Some flowers are incorporated into traditional drinks, such as curado de pulque with cempasúchil and rosas de cacao in téjate. Others are prepared in sauces, tamales, such as cuchunuc flowers, and pickles such as biznagas, cabuches, and cacayas.
Pumpkin flowers and huauzontle have come to be positioned in national supermarkets and multinational corporations, as well as in traditional markets and tianguis. The other flowers are more difficult to get, you have to wait for the flowering season, mainly during the rainy season, and go to the markets and tianguis, where they are usually sold by people who extract them from the forest.
The flowers are the reproductive part of the plant, these will become fruits with seeds that will give rise to new plants. Over-exploitation of these resources can have negative consequences, hence the importance of evaluating the effect of extraction, the economic and cultural importance of these activities, and establishing appropriate management and conservation strategies.
Full-Citation: CyD, By Carmen Julia Figueredo-Urbina, Pablo Octavio Aguilar, María Teresa Pulido Silva