Sat, Apr 01, 2017 - Page 13 News List

An asparagus by any other name

Tuberose as a food might have come about as a result of silly political wrangling, but it has proved a boon to Taiwan’s culinary culture

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Steamed tuberose with pecorino, black rice and grapes is a dish that is simple and sophisticated.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Polianthes tuberose (晚香玉筍) is a vegetable that has been making a steady, though almost glacial, move into the culinary mainstream in Taiwan, though as recently as 2014 the Apple Daily promoted it under the headline of “Nine vegetables in Taiwan that you’ve never eaten.” This list admittedly also included such Mediterranean standards as zucchini flower and artichoke hearts, which would be familiar to anyone here who enjoyed classic dishes of southern Europe, but tuberose seems to be a genuine outsider.

The tuberose is important around the world in the production of perfumes and is also used as an essential oil and an element within the odiferous arsenal of aromatherapy. Its beautiful white flowers and natural fragrance have also made it popular for use within floral tributes for various occasions. It is in this form that it is probably best known in Taiwan, and under its common name of yelaixiang (夜來香), it is recognizable to every school child. Despite its English name, it is not in any way related to the rose, as its fragrance and appearance of its flower would probably make immediately apparent.

The use of the tuberose as a food does not have a long history and may well only date back to 2011, due to an event that former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jiou (馬英九) may well have had a direct, if probably unintended, role.

According to a report published in the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper, the Liberty Times, in July 2011 (news.ltn.com.tw/news/life/paper/507443), the fact that tuberose was developed as a food at all was due to the then president initiating a policy of not using flowers as gifts in the course of regular government affairs. As these flowers had been a major part of the florist’s palette for making floral arrangements that beautify the ugly business of political wrangling, this policy led to a massive drop in the price for tuberose intended for the flower markets. According to the report, growers joked that they would have to eat the plants if they couldn’t sell them. One enterprising grower took a bitter joke to heart, redirecting (after some tweaking to the growing process) his crop to the vegetable market.

The new vegetable won recognition at the International Food Expo in Singapore in 2010, and has made occasional appearances on various celebrity menus, but it does not seem to have made any big strides since. This is a shame, as the tuberose is my new asparagus, and since I was introduced to it, unwillingly, by a stallholder at the local market who I knew would pretty much say anything to off-load some not-in-demand produce to the weird foreigner who seemed keen on trying anything new. I am generally willing to put down my inability to make something taste nice to my own ineptitude, but there are some ingredients that I have almost become smug about when I find I cannot find a palatable version regardless of where I go. It is not a beautiful emotion to find satisfaction in the failure of others, but what the hell, you have to find support where you can.

To cut a long rant short, I did not put much stock in the casual suggestion that I should treat it just like asparagus. So it is slightly humiliating to admit that the best preparation I have found so far is to steam the tuberose stems. The good news is that they taste awesome! They are better than asparagus. Much better, certainly than most asparagus that I have been able to get here, and I will take them as an alternative anytime in both Western and Chinese cooking.

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