Before I moved to the United States at the age of 5, I lived in Wuhan, China, where I was constantly experiencing the sensory overload that is family. Every day was filled with laughter and shouting, flashes of cousins zooming from one room to another, and the comforting smells of homemade food wafting from the kitchen, where my grandmother cooked feasts with pots and pans bigger than her, never burning a single grain of rice. Standing at just about 4’10”, she embodies the phrase “larger than life,” and is the only person who can settle the maelstrom and get everyone to gather around a table.
At these Sunday dinners, there was a whole fish, some version of meat and potatoes, and plenty of greens, but there was one dish that would make me sit straight up and fill me with an eagerness so strong my mom and aunt would have to protect any nearby glasses from being knocked over. My relatives knew to pass the plate to me first.
The dish is my grandmother’s fried lotus and minced pork “stacks.” Like chicken wings, it’s a finger food that is usually considered an appetizer or snack, but deep down, you want to treat it like an entrée. (I do, anyway.) To construct the stacks, you take two slices of raw lotus and sandwich a spoonful of minced pork with scallions and ginger—a filling almost identical to what you’d find in a dumpling—in between them. The stacks are then coated in a batter flavored with Chinese five-spice powder and lightened with seltzer water for extra crunch before being thrown into oil for deep-frying. The result is a three-bite snack composed of multiple layers, each with its own flavor and texture. The crispy and salty shell coats the sweet and crunchy lotus. To me, every bite contained more variety than the many composed dishes on the table.
This dish is wildly popular in Wuhan because of the city’s abundance of lotus, and not very well-known outside China. If you’re not familiar with lotus root, think of it as a starchier potato with holes. Like potatoes, lotus is incredibly versatile. It can be sautéed, roasted, pickled, fried, or added to stews. When lightly cooked, lotus has a refreshing crispness, but when simmered for a long period of time, it goes from white to a muted pink and becomes soft and fibrous. Because I abruptly transitioned from having lotus almost every single day to almost never, I have elevated this humble aquatic root vegetable to sacred status.
While my grandmother’s fried lotus and pork stacks are unrivaled in their delectability, the real reason I love them so much is because they transport me back to a lovelier time in my life, when I lived in the same country, as my extended family and my biggest conflict was evading relatives who were always trying to feed me at all hours of the day.
The Meat Filling
- 1 1/2 pounds ground pork (or ground chicken)
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1/3 cup water
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 scallion, finely chopped
The Lotus Stacks and Batter
- 3 pounds fresh lotus root (about 4 lobes)
- canola or vegetable oil (enough to fill 1/3 of a heavy pot)
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/3 cup seltzer water
What's a dish from your past you'd lunge for? Let us know in the comments!