The lotus is a lovely plant, and in Korea every single part of it has a purpose. The flowers are used for tea, the leaves for rice, the seeds for herbal medicine and the stems for flavoring (dried stems can be used in pickling jars). But it’s the roots that are the best known and most widely eaten part. “Yeon” (연) means lotus, and yeongeun (연근) means lotus root. Some people call lotus root the “treasure in the mud.”
We’re not exactly sure how long lotuses have been in Korea, but they became widespread with the introduction of Buddhism in the early 5th century. Lotuses are a well-known Buddhist emblem (the ethereal flower floating above the muddy root symbolizes purity of thought). Today, you’ll find the majority of lotus farms in the south and southeastern regions of Korea. Many of them are centered around Daegu in North Gyeongsang Province, and that’s where we headed on a bright October day.
Kim Shin-jae and his brother run Kitosan yeongeun farm just east of Daegu, in an area dotted with farms and high-rise apartments on the horizon. Like many younger farmers, Mr. Kim worked in the city but joined a back-to-the-land movement and started farming 10 years ago. He and his brother started a cooperative with other farmers in their area called Dureon Dureon (두런 두런) that sends products directly to consumers. It doesn’t get much fresher than this. In the warehouse, Mr. Kim showed us piles of freshly-harvested lotus root. “Fresh yeongeun should have a good snap to it,” he explained while breaking one root in half with sharp crack.
Each root has four segments: The bottom two segments are large, fibrous pieces called sutnom (숫놈, male) and the top two segments are smaller and newer and are called amnom (암놈, female). Sutnom roots are sold off for commercial purposes or ground up to make yeongeun powder, while the more desirable amnom parts are sold to consumers.
Many farms these days drain their fields and use an excavator or hand-held tools to dig up the lotus roots, but the brothers came up with a method that uses water to loosen up the mud, causing less damage to the product. Harvesting starts in August and goes nearly year-round, to early summer the following year, though Mr. Kim says he thinks lotus is most delicious in winter. But of course, whenever you get your yeongeun, get it as fresh as possible.
Lotus root is a tasty, starchy root that can be deep-fried, baked, roasted and braised. Lotus root flour is also a useful ingredient. In jeon (전, Korean savory pancakes), when added to the typical wheat flour mix, lotus root powder creates a softer, fluffier pancake because its starches absorb more water at room temperature. Play around with lotus root and you’ll be surprised by its versatility!
Flavor profile: When you take a bit of fresh, raw yeongeun, the first note you taste is the kind of mild sweetness you get from raw sweet potato, with elements of raw mature coconut. It has quite a lot of starch, so you also can taste the starchiness at the end. Raw lotus root also contains mucin, which protects your stomach lining much like mountain yam does, so there’s that slight sticky element as well. As for the texture, it has a lot of fiber so it has a nice crunchiness, something between apple and raw potato. In cooked yeongeun, the flavors mellow out and are a good canvas for other flavors.
How to choose: First, look for roots covered in dirt—they’ll keep longer. If you can’t find any of these, look for roots that are light brown and not too dark. Try to avoid spots. Smaller roots (around 10 to 15cm) have the best flavor and crunchiness. Try to avoid pre-peeled, pre-sliced yeongeun—they’re sometimes bleached. The extra effort is worth it!
How to prepare: Peel the skin and slice. Keep them in water with some dash of vinegar if you are planning to use it later. The acid prevents browning from oxidation.
Recipe: Yeongeun jorim (연근 조림, soy sauce-braised lotus root)
How to store: If you’ve gotten a dirt-covered root, don’t wash it, just wrap it in newspaper or paper towels and keep in your vegetable crisper. It will keep for about 2 weeks. When you start seeing spots on the skin, it means it’s going bad. If you’re unsure about the freshness, peel the skin—the flesh should still be milky white and crunchy. To store peeled roots, slice and put into an airtight container with a dash of vinegar and change the water every day for up to 5 days or so (but keep an eye on it).