A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
CDS editor’s note:
Sini Nina Chen is a freshly minted Duke University grad, departing with a BA in public policy, a Certificate in Documentary Studies from the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), and a Certificate in Policy Journalism and Media Studies. The Hangzhou, China, native discovered CDS during orientation week and was a regular here for the next four years, honing her interest and talents in photography. In Kelly Alexander’s celebrated documentary studies course, Our Culinary Cultures, she also discovered a passion for nonfiction writing. Nina wrote what she describes as an “experimental ethnography” for that class; her essay, “On Eating Lotus,” is featured in this dispatch. The piece garnered her an Honorable Mention for CDS’s 2019 Documentary Essay Prize, an extraordinary achievement for a young writer. She was also awarded CDS’s 2019 Julia Harper Day Award, which recognizes a graduating Duke senior who has demonstrated excellence in documentary studies and has significantly contributed to CDS programs. Kelly has this to say about Nina and “On Eating Lotus”:
The final assignment in Our Culinary Cultures is to create an original documentary essay using text and images about any ingredient the student would like to investigate. Students must draw upon both archival research and personal experiences in their writings in order to document some of the ways in which food links history and memory. Nina knew right away that she wanted to write about the lotus because of her personal connection to it, and so we discussed how she could marry those reflections with botanical research, as well as historical material about the lotus's significance to the art and culture of the Chinese city of Hangzhou and its celebrated West Lake. Nina simply blew me away with the elegance and assuredness of her writing, especially in the way she brings readers right along with her as she explores the lotus as a symbol of her own mother and of China, and also of the ways in which food can guide a young woman's journey to independence. Here is the best kind of food writing, meaningful without being overly sentimental, rigorous and informative without being overly academic, and just delightful to read.
—Alexa Dilworth, CDS awards, publishing, and DocX lab director
My mother’s name 伟莲, Weilian, literally means the “great lotus.” She was born in 1971 in the heat of summer—humid, swampy, and unpleasant. With an all-consuming restlessness and irritability in the air, the only thing that brought a touch of coolness to the people in the neighborhood was the lotus pond two streets down from my grandmother’s place. So grateful was my grandma for the cooling power of these elegant flowers that she named her newborn after them.
According to traditional Chinese naming customs, a person’s given name represents her parents’ truest wishes for their child’s future. Naming a child can easily become an overwhelming task: Do we wish our beloved success? To be always in good health? To gain fame and recognition? To be rich? To be graceful? What my grandma knew when she named my mother was that the lotus is symbolic of a whole host of virtues: purity, innocence, calm, unaffectedness, and tenaciousness. I’ve always understood all of these characteristics to be true of both the lotus and my mother. What I never spent too much time thinking about is how the lotus, a seemingly ordinary flower, came to gather so much cultural significance.
Every memory I have of my childhood summer spent with family in 杭州, Hangzhou, is accompanied by the faint scent of lotus. The southern terminus of the Grand Canal waterway and a popular vacation spot for numerous emperors from the Song to the Qing Dynasty, 杭州 is a historical city with 西湖, West Lake, at its center. One of China’s most cherished landmarks, the lake has been celebrated by poets and artists since the ninth century. Hangzhou is renowned not only for its scenery, but also for the skein of historical and literary meaning that embraces, and sometimes entangles, the city. This city-scenic area, or “leisure zone,” has become associated with a particular 江南⽂化, Lower Yangtze River culture, which the famous historian of China, Geremie Barmé, says is defined by its “refined indulgence developed around temples, pleasure boats, tea houses, eating places, and courtesan’s quarters.”
Growing up, my parents, my two sisters, and I would always stroll around West Lake after we ate dinner, stopping to admire the twinkling reflections of skyscrapers on the lake’s mirrorlike surface. I often wondered how much history the lake had witnessed, how much human life the lotuses had seen.
As a kid my absolute favorite thing to do was to walk around West Lake in my rain boots during a summer storm, stepping into every puddle in my path. When I finally grew exhausted from all that splashing, I would stand still, holding my breath, to watch water roll off of the lotus leaves. Rain would fall onto the glossy leaves and form individual drops that were so round, so full, so perfect. They would then roll all around the leaf, as if they were teasing the other droplets, getting bigger and rounder on their way, eventually falling to the leaf’s center where all the droplets beaded together. When the bead got large and heavy enough, the wind would inevitably make the leaf tremble, catapulting it into the pond. It made the most wonderfully playful sound.
I later learned that lotus leaves stay dry because of their superhydrophobic surfaces. The nanostructure of the leaf’s surface is woven tightly together with microbumps all along its edges. This means lotus leaves are not only water repellent but are also self-cleaning—as water droplets roll around the leaf they attract small particles of dirt. I was surprised to learn that technology companies and defense contractors have looked to lotus leaves as inspiration for cutting-edge bio-mimicking nanotechnology, hoping to replicate this unique capability of the flower.
Because lotus leaves clean themselves, they also make the perfect wrappers for our regional cuisine. Long, long before the invention of plastic wraps, many dim sum and dessert dishes were traditionally wrapped in dried lotus leaves—from the classic Dragon Boat Festival treat 粽子, Zongzi, sticky rice dumplings, to everyday dim sum like 荷叶粉蒸肉, steamed pork with glutinous rice. A lotus leaf’s large flat surface, lacking veins and bumps, help it adhere to almost any food item without adding bulk.
While the leaves offer supreme utility, lotus flowers are revered for their singular aesthetics. Before they blossom, the pale buds are oftentimes hidden in the bright, voluptuous leaves, but as the buds slowly open, the pink-on-top-white-on-bottom petals reveal themselves. Sacred flowers in the Buddhist tradition for their perceived calmness and grace, the remarkably beautiful lotus flowers last months at a time—their slight, sweet scent traveling across the air.
When the petals finally fall, it marks the end of summer. The pips stand tall on hollow stems, each hosting a handful of green oval seeds on its crown. I remember watching lotus harvesters, their wooden rowboats decorated with plant-dyed tapestries, cutting down the pips. They would then sell them along the roadsides, telling pedestrians about the medicinal values the pips and seeds offer—though no one I knew ever really believed that was true, except my grandmother.
“The seeds are bitter but so, so good for you, my sweet flower—they supplement 五脏 (the five internal organs) and facilitate dredging 经脉 (the twelve standard meridians).” The vendors would enthusiastically nod as my grandma went on and on about lotus seeds’ supposed healing properties and medicinal value. But the sparks in their eyes would die the minute she ended her soliloquy with the words, “Well, sweet flower, we will make sure to stop by the neighborhood pond to get some pips for free, huh?”
We would then head to the pond ourselves and carefully trim off pips at the edge to take home. We washed the pips quickly, transferring the oval seeds onto a paper towel to dry. My family would gather around, each of us popping one or two seeds at a time into his or her mouth, all of us lamenting the terribly astringent flavor yet happily partaking anyway. For us, it was a holy sacrament. I never believed that lotus seeds would do my health any good; my mother is a biochemistry professor and my father is a geneticist. If their collective brains could not confirm the lotus’s healing properties, I couldn’t believe, but it was fun to pretend to believe all the same.
The root of the lotus, the rhizome, is the part most readily available for human consumption. Buried in shallow mud, it is shaped like a sweet potato and is the part of the plant that sustains the leaves, flower, and pip that are visible above the water. The end of the summer in Hangzhou is known as 莲藕节, “Lian Ou”—the season of lotus root harvesting. Rowboats leave the perimeter of the lake, floating lightly and carrying ridiculously long nets, and return barely afloat, full of roots ready to be sold on the pedestrian and bike route that circles all of West Lake.
My favorite regional dish is made from fresh lotus root—糯米藕, glazed root stuffed with sticky rice. Whenever I went out to eat with my parents' friends, instead of asking for fried rice or sweet rolls like most kids, I’d ask for this flavorful dish that is unique to our region. I secretly patted myself on the back for impressing the elders with my “sophisticated” and “cultured” taste. But I also genuinely love this dish; it always makes me feel at home.
Anthropologist Janet Carsten at the University of Edinburgh has theorized that kinship does not have to be associated with the nuclear family but rather with “a processual view . . . of personhood.” Carsten believes that when people live together and eat together—whether or not they are technically related by blood—they share in important rites of passage that help establish group identity and a sense of mutual belonging.
糯米藕 is my favorite kinship substance: it reminds me of my grandma’s cooking, my childhood running around West Lake, my city’s history and culture, my familial bonds. Every single bite of this dish is a memory of childhood summers spent at home. Once when I was far away at college, a continent away, I was feeling particularly lonely. I reached out to my grandma, explaining that this dish would be the ultimate cure for my homesickness. She sent me the recipe.
Lotus root, glutinous rice, lump candy, honey, and dried osmanthus flowers. These are the ingredients, and they seem simple enough, if you can find them. The tricky part was that my grandma did not specify any measurements for the ingredients; when I started cooking, though, the process felt natural. My family has always believed that American cooking is basically about following scientific steps in order to recreate a taste, but that Chinese cooking is about creating flavor using only what we have on hand and in our imaginations. I was putting that theory to the test.
As I broke two sections of lotus root out of their plastic wrap, I tried my hardest to be aware of their smell. They had a faint scent of earthiness, vaguely similar to the smell when one first bites into a radish or a parsnip—fresh, a bit fruity, a bit peppery, not at all flowery. As I tried to find the scent, I started to think about Chinese culinary culture broadly—the act of eating, of tasting, and the semantics and politics of two verbs: 吃, chi, to eat, and 味, wei, to taste.
Chi refers to the physical act of eating, but the linguistic use of chi extends well beyond that. As for wei, the Asian Studies professor Gang Yue at the University of North Carolina argues that the word means much more than its literal translation of “flavor”: it is a “position of betweenness that signifies the tangible attributes of the food and the subjective feeling of gustatory-aesthetic taste.” In my opinion, the meaning of wei goes even further—to me, it means the way that people not only eat, but also figuratively digest and ruminate on the cultural meanings ascribed to a specific food.
One use of the character 吃, chi, outside of food is the idea of 吃苦, chiku, which literally translates to “eating bitterness,” but is also liberally translated to mean the state of enduring suffering. When my grandma named my mother after the lotus flower, she noted the lotus’s ability to chiku—they grow up from the bottom of muddy, humid swamps for years before they finally produce the beautiful flowers that bloom just above the water. Like the lotus, my grandma wanted her youngest daughter to be resilient, to be able to meet life’s hardships.
The idea of chiku took on a different meaning and an added significance as my family migrated to different parts of the world. When we were in ninth grade, my twin sister and I moved to Omaha, Nebraska; four years later, our little sister moved to the tiny island state of Guam. All the while, my grandma held fiercely to the conviction that my mother’s three daughters, just like the lotus, would develop roots in these obscure and confusing new territories and continue to evolve and thrive. As we continue to grow up away from our grandma—as we start to speak a language unrecognizable to her and participate in events and activities that she considers bizarre—our lotus selves keep our deep connection intact. “Only make friends with those who don’t ask you to change,” “blend in but stick to your roots,” “breathe in and know that you are made of flowers and poetry,” “be beautiful and proud,” are just a few of our grandmother’s adages that we carry with us. In fact, since my grandmother got a cell phone two years ago, I now sometimes wake to wonderfully touching texts from her. Once, I awoke to a photo of the first lotus blossom of West Lake for the summer.
With the paring knife in my right hand, I carefully navigate the creases and folds of the root, shaving off the skin, revealing its pale white body. A strong new smell emerges. I think of another take on chi—不食人间烟火, bu shi ren jian yan huo, “to not eat the food of common mortals,” which more loosely translates to a kind of “otherworldliness.” The root’s white heart is absolutely impervious to its surroundings, clean and packed full of minerals and vitamins despite not receiving sunlight or even much oxygen. It is not pretty or particularly remarkable, but it is inherently exquisite. When I hold it, the idea of remaining true to one’s self, of holding onto cultural roots in foreign worlds, comes full circle.
This sense of “otherworldliness" can also be found in the flowers. Over twelve hundred years ago in Qin Dynasty, the first reference was made to 宝⽯⼭, Baoshi Mountain, where the regal Big Stone Buddhist Temple bore witness to all of humanity on the north side of the West Lake. In Tang Dynasty, pilgrims took boats to the foothills in order to worship at the temple. Around this time, Buddhist monks residing in Big Stone Temple started to cultivate lotus, because they found the cleanliness and purity of the flower appealing. In fact, legend has it that Gautama Buddha thought of his fellow men as lotus buds in a lake. Growing in mud yet undefiled, the lotus became a symbol of purity, of unbotheredness, of the enlightened state when one is no longer bogged down by daily tasks, thoughts, and worries. My father, a lover of Buddhist literature and Confucian texts, constantly reminds me that this unbotheredness is a kind of mindful state that I can experiment with and adapt.
Once the lotus roots are clean and peeled, the fun begins. Following my grandma’s instructions, I drain the bowl of sticky rice that’s been soaking overnight, and then, laying a root on its side, I chop off an inch; the root has “insular pipes” that thread through it horizontally, functioning as airways. Holding the root upright, I scoop up a handful of rice and sprinkle it on top, slowly maneuvering grains into the pipes using a single chopstick, making sure each one is packed tightly with the rice.
Mixing these two wholly different ingredients, one grain and the other vegetable, one soft, the other crunchy, makes me think about another fundamental concept in chi—the idea of omnivorousness, of a group of people indiscriminately eating everything together. 中国人什么都吃, “Chinese people eat everything,” is an endearment when uttered by Chinese people to one another, but a serious insult otherwise. I think about how this sentiment was historically deployed to disparage early Chinese immigrants to America, who were seen as dirty “savages” with no regard for the finer things in life.
Emily Hahn, an American journalist born in 1905, published a book in 1968 based on her experiences cooking Chinese food. She observed that in China, lotus “awakens echoes of Oriental poetry rather than physical hunger in the Western mind” but is also “one of China’s important sources of food and medicine.” While she avers that the lotus’s multiple uses were due to its elevated status as a culturally significant flower in Chinese society, I know that the prominence of the lotus is mainly due to hunger, to a lack of resources, and to 能干, neng’gan, “Chinese scrappiness.” We use every part of the plant. The flower stamen is used in cosmetics and skincare products because it is the most accessible floral ingredient south of the Yangtze River. Lotuses were originally cultivated for their aesthetic value; the roots were probably not meant to be consumed, but famine and hunger pushed people to eat cheap starches like lotus roots.
Once the root is stuffed full of sticky rice, I reattach the end I chopped off earlier. I use toothpicks and fashion a cap for my stuffed lotus. The instructions get hazy at this point—“now cook the root until it’s done.” But how? Using what? For how long? “You’ll know when it’s done,” my grandma says. Even in cooking, my grandmother emphasizes intuition. She stresses the relationship between the cook and the ingredients and instructs me to watch over my dish continuously, to not allow a modern piece of time-keeping technology to dictate my work.
When I decide the time is right, I add honey and lump candy into the water. I try my hardest to correctly guess how much to add; I play with the proportions until the liquid tastes just sweet enough without being cloying. As I wait for the dish to cook, I think about the lotus’s place in spiritual and religious texts. Clinical psychologist and Buddhism scholar Pavel G. Somov contends that suffering takes place when we lose sight of our true sense of self and absorb everyday frustrations rather than letting those feelings of frustration fall away. Gautama Buddha reached enlightenment by letting go of his dissatisfactions. Somov makes the point that if we can actively practice detaching ourselves from life’s disappointments and fears, we can work toward our “lotus selves” and grow to possess resilience.
Two hours later, I decide the lotus is done, because the sweet liquid it has been baking in has become a thick glaze. The root is dark brown and soft. As I spoon up the thick, gooey, sugary goodness at the bottom of the pot, my Indie Rock Pandora station starts playing “Time/Space” by one of my favorite musicians, Alex G. His raspy voice fills the room: “You were born inside your head and that is where you’ll be when you are dead.” My mind conjures thoughts of the pristine and sacred flower trailing up from its root in the mud and returning to the shallow muck at summer’s end. The following year the lotus flower reappears as fragrant and virtuous as ever. What if we were also able to let the trials and tribulations of our chaotic lives slip away and eventually emerge unscathed?
Guided by the lotus as aesthetic symbol, cultural host, and extraordinarily useful ingredient, I look inward. My grandma’s term of endearment for me—“sweet flower”—chimes in my head, and I am aware of the kinship I feel not with another person but with a flower. This plant so close to my heart occupies both the physical landscapes I’ve occupied and the more ethereal nonplaces I’ve navigated over my years of being away from home. Wherever I am, the lotus anchors me.
Hangzhou Glazed Lotus Roots Stuffed with Sticky Rice
Lotus root, sticky rice, dried osmanthus flower, lump candy, honey, water
Rinse the sticky rice and soak overnight.
Wash and peel the lotus root.
Cut off one end of the lotus at the inch mark, that will be the “cap.”
Stand the root upright, fill the airway pipes with soaked sticky rice using a chopstick.
Secure the “cap” back on as a lid using toothpicks.
Place the lotus root in the pot, submerge it in water. Stir in lump candy, osmanthus flower, and honey.
Boil and then simmer until the root is cooked, cook on high heat to allow liquid to thicken.
Slice the lotus root and finish with leftover glaze on top.
“Dispatches from the CDS” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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