On a hot, sunny Friday afternoon, 83-year-old Mohana Gill is peering at some flowers hanging from a tree in her lush, sprawling garden. “Oh, these look beautiful, don’t they?” she says, gesturing at a cluster of blue pea flowers in full bloom.
Picking a few flowers, she sets them down carefully in her basket, having already decided to use them in a drink she is preparing.
“You’ve got to be very careful and delicate when you cook with flowers. But flowers are so beautiful that just having them in your meals can make you feel so happy. Because how can you not be happy when you’re surrounded by flowers?” she asks simply.
The making of Flowerlicious
Mohana is an acclaimed cookbook writer whose previous cookbooks Myanmar: Cuisine, Culture & Customs, Fruitastic! and Vegemania! have all nabbed prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars in the cookbook world).
Fruitastic! and Vegemania! focused on fruits and vegetables respectively and Mohana has continued walking down this plant-based, natural eating path with Flowerlicious: For Healthy Living, Longevity and Wellness, which represents the final cog in this trilogy.
While the book has only recently been published, the true roots of Mohana’s affiliation with flower cuisine began when she was a child in Myanmar.
“When I was growing up, most people had bigger gardens and a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers that they would just grow and pick. As a child, I remember my mother using moringa flowers when they were in season to make different kinds of meals like dry-fries or soups,” says Mohana, an exuberant soul with a wonderfully disarming smile and an impeccable sense of style.
Growing up against a backdrop of flower cuisine fashioned out of accessibility clearly had an impact on Mohana as she couldn’t get it out of her head, even as she approached her 80s.
“At the back of my mind, I always wanted to do something with flowers, but sometimes you think about something for a long time and for some reason or other, things don’t work out. So I did several other things and then last year, I thought ‘I really need to do this book on flowers, ’” she says.
Cooking with flowers
The book took nearly three months for Mohana and her team (photographers, floral designers and art designers) to put together and is made up of 60 flower-powered recipes, buoyed by a series of floral-inspired quotes.
The aesthetic appeal of Flowerlicious is undeniable – various blooms adorn this stunning floral repository, which is speckled with colour, vibrance and oh-so much head-turning beauty.
The recipes are equally wide-ranging and incorporate flowers in a multitude of ways – from floral sprinkles laced atop a meal for visual enhancement (like flower crepes) to meals that actually actively incorporate flowers in the cooking process (like Mohana’s pumpkin flower and carrot soup).
Recipes that immediately stand out in the book include the likes of moringa flower soup, ginger flower dip, zucchini blossoms stuffed with sticky rice, roselle chutney, flower garden orbs and Vietnamese garden spring rolls.
“I had lots and lots of recipes, so I had to decide what recipes to use. And you know, you can have 100 or 200 recipes, but I thought it was better for me to do 60 recipes but 60 really do-able recipes, ” explains Mohana.
Mohana says cooking with flowers is something of an art as some flowers are notoriously tricky to deal with. Zucchini flowers, for instance, wilt almost immediately after being taken out of an air-conditioned environment and consequently, have to be handled with care.
“You have to be quick with what you’re doing because the flowers wilt very fast. So it’s a little bit more delicate to handle and I think perhaps also a little bit more time-consuming to do that. So when you do a dinner party, you might want to have one dish that uses flowers and the rest can be normal food, so it becomes easy for you to handle as well.
“And also you want to make sure that you have something that is a little bit different from others, so for example with zucchini flowers, normally it is stuffed with cheese and deep-fried, but I decided to stuff it with pulut instead, ” she says.
Mohana also believes in utilising as many local ingredients as possible, to capitalise on nutritional value. Which is why you’ll find Malaysian floral staples like ginger flowers, papaya flowers, blue pea flowers and moringa flowers peppered throughout the book.
“I was trying to incorporate a little bit of whatever is available in our country, to make each dish not just beautiful but also not so difficult to cook, because people don’t have time to hunt down inaccessible flowers, ” she says.
All the recipes in the book are also precise and very user-friendly so readers will be able to attempt new flower-fuelled recipes without getting befuddled along the way, something Mohana intended from the outset as she is aware that most young people are strangers to flower cuisine.
“You should be able to do it, because it’s stated very clearly in the book how to do it. But again, a recipe is not something that you have to follow to the tee. I think a recipe gives you an idea of how you can do something and you can always mix and match to however you like. So you can play around with it, and use whatever is available at home or in season, ” she says.
Pick and choose
Although cooking with flowers adds undeniable charm to a meal, Mohana says it is imperative that people study and understand what sorts of flowers can safely be consumed as not all flowers are actually edible. To be on the safe side, she encourages people to grow their own edible flowers or simply buy packed edible flowers from local supermarkets.
“You’ve got to be very, very careful when you eat flowers. So only cook with those flowers which are sold in the supermarket that are marked edible.
“But of course if you grow your own flowers, then you will know it is okay to eat. I have a garden filled with blue pea flowers, moringa flowers and banana blossoms and this is what I use in my cooking, ” she affirms.
Common edible flowers that can be sourced locally include marigolds, moringa flowers, banana blossoms, torch ginger flowers, butterfly pea flowers, roselle, basil flowers, roses, pansies, papaya flowers and zucchini blossoms.
So long as the flowers used in your cooking have been verified at the source, Mohana says blooms can provide plenty of nutritional enhancements to daily meals. Nasturtium flowers for instance, are rich in Vitamin C while zucchini blossoms are a good source of potassium and Vitamins A, B9 and C. Local blossoms are also packed with nutrients – roselle is rich in antioxidants while butterfly pea flower has anthocyanins (a water-soluble compound) that restores collagen in the skin.
Although her cookbooks have all attained some degree of fame or other, Mohana says Flowerlicious will mark the end of her cookbook career. At 83, she is happy to have made her culinary mark locally and internationally.
“Personally I am very, very satisfied with my life and I have written enough books, ” she confirms.
And Mohana says she hopes people will feel this same degree of satisfaction when they see her final cookbook.
“I think we have too much stress in our lives and our lives can be too complicated. So it’s nice for a change to open a book where you don’t have to think and the photographs of all the beautiful flowers reach out to you and give you that kind of calmness and just a feeling of well-being, ” she says.
Flowerlicious was recently named ‘Best in All’ for Malaysia at this year’s Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and will go on to compete with winners from over 200 countries for the title of ‘World’s Best’. The book is priced at RM129 and available in major bookstores.
MORINGA FLOWER SOUP
1 small cup moringa flowers (keep some for garnishing)
2.5cm fresh ginger, chopped
1/4 tsp black peppercorns
a pinch of cumin powder
salt to taste
1 tbsp oil
Heat oil in a small pot and add pepper and cumin. Let splutter for a minute.
Add ginger, flowers and a cup of water. Bring to a boil.
Remove from heat. Garnish with fresh moringa flowers. Serve warm.
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