China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Cooking with Flowers—Stir-Fried Lilies with Ham

June 26th, 2012

When I moved to a city known as the “spring city” of China, I expected to see lots of flowers. I expected flowering trees and shrubs, flowers planted in all the parks, and flowers on all the windowsills. What I didn’t expect was to see flowers show up on my plate. But in late spring and early summer, that’s exactly where many of the region’s flowers end up. There are tiny squash blossoms (still attached to the squash), stir-fried eggs with jasmine blossoms, and tiny little yellow flowers that I’ve seen sold in my local market but I’ve never seen cooked.

The most popular flower to cook with seems to be the day lily, specifically Hemerocallis minor Mill., known commonly as the Grassleaf Day Lily. These stunning golden flowers (simply called huang hua or “golden flowers” locally), are picked before the buds open but still have a stunning aroma. Stir-fried, they retain some of that aroma, but they also take on a flavor not unlike that of green tea—slightly vegetal but also warm and almost buttery. Local restaurants prepare them simply by blanching them and then stir-frying them for only a few seconds with a few slivers of garlic and some dried chiles, but my favorite version, which comes from a nearby restaurant that serves the foods of the local Yi minority, also incorporates slivers of salty, earthy Yunnan ham.

Recipe: Stir-Fried Grassleaf Day Lilies with Yunnan Ham

Photos: Josh Wand, Georgia Freedman, Josh Wand