Have you ever cooked with flower essences? In our monthly column, One Curious Ingredient, Michelle Peters-Jones explores the history and culinary use of ingredients or dishes that are unfamiliar to her — and probably many of us! Today, Michelle takes a closer look at floral essences like rosewater, orange blossom water, elderflower and kewra water and how they're used in the kitchen.
I've always been fascinated by the concept of edible flowers and floral essences in cooking and culinary trends. When we were children growing up in India, my mother grew an assortment of edible roses, and one of our childhood pleasures was to pick the petals off them and taste the heady, floral bitterness. We also loved sucking the sweet sap from banana flowers, and finding edible wildflowers in our grandparents' vast farmland.
Growing up, this translated into a real interest in flower essences, and today we're going to learn more about three of my favourites: rosewater, orange flower water and kewra (screw pine water).
Of these three, I'm most familiar with rosewater, as it's one of those essences that's used a lot in Indian cooking, but I'm always making traditional sweets that use kewra and orange flower water as well.
What is Rosewater?
Rosewater is the distilled essence of rose petals. Rosewater is the by-product of the process of making rose oil (which can be really expensive) and is made by distilling rose petals and water. It has a very distinct fragrance of roses, and is used both as a cooking ingredient and as a garnish to add a burst of fragrance to the finished dish.
How is Rosewater Used In Cooking?
Probably the best known cuisines that use rosewater are Turkish and Persian, along with the Mughlai-style of cooking in India. It's a staple in Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and some North African cooking, both in savoury and sweet dishes.
It's used to flavour pilau rice, meats, biriyanis and other dishes, and also as a flavouring in baklava, kheer and kulfis. It's also used to make rose milk, a popular South East Asian street drink, and is added to lassi, a yogurt-based drink from India.
Rosewater is also used as a face toner and moisturiser in tropical countries and is a popular ingredient in the perfume industry.
Orange Flower Water
What is Orange Flower Water?
Orange flower water, or orange blossom water, is another popular flower essence in European, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. Also known as orange blossom water, it is, like rosewater, a by-product of bitter orange blossoms that are distilled for their essential oils.
How is Orange Blossom Water Used in Cooking?
Originally used to fragrance the home and welcome guests, orange flower water is also used in various culinary preparations, mainly desserts. While originating in the Middle East and North Africa, this is one essence that has spread all over Europe, even influencing French cooking.
The taste of pure orange flower water can be quite bitter, and it's often mixed with syrups or water to tone it down and add the flavour without the bitterness. The fragrant essence is heady with citrus and floral notes. I personally use it in madeleines, baklavas, almond cakes, orange creams and to make delicious summer drinks.
What is Kewra (or Keora)
Now, here is one curious ingredient. Kewra (or Keora) — screw pine or pandanus blossom water — is a quintessentially South Asian ingredient.
Kewra is a clear liquid and it's hard to describe the flavor of this essence, with its heady, floral-fruity honey notes that are unique to it. Kewra is used in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cooking, and is one of the ingredients that give this cuisine its mystery. It's not well known outside the subcontinent, but is a staple in ethnic kitchens all over the world.
It's used, similar to the above essences, in flavouring both sweet and savoury food. It's a staple in biriyanis and meat stews, and can be used instead of rosewater in most Indian desserts, particularly kheer (rice pudding) and gulab jamuns. Kewra is also used as a cooler in the hot tropical summers, and is added to desserts and summer drinks.
Where Can I Find Flower Essences?
Most of these essences mentioned here can be found in the ethnic section of the grocery store - especially rosewater and elderberry cordial (which I didn't cover here but which is very popular in Europe and the UK for flavouring cocktails, drinks and desserts).
However, you might have to visit an Indian or Middle Eastern grocery to find orange flower water and kewra. These essences can also be found online. Make sure to look for natural essences and avoid any that say artificial fragrance on the ingredient list. These essences can be stored in your pantry or in a cool, dark place (like spices) and will last you quite a while.
Ideas For Cooking With Flower Essences
If you're looking for some ways to cook with flower essences, check out this collection of recipe ideas!
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