The lotus flower rises from filth, unstained. Found throughout Asia, Nelumbo nucifera is an aquatic perennial that makes its home in murky malarial pools. Its beautiful pink and white flowers tower more than a metre above the water, pale petals standing in stark contrast to its profusion of wide hovering emerald leaves.
The lotus is an important symbol in Hindu and Buddhist lore and iconography. In both religious traditions, the lotus, untarnished by the foul waters from which it rises, has become synonymous with overcoming the attachments of our impure physical world to achieve a state of perfection and grace. The Hindu god Brahma was born from a lotus sprouting from Vishnu’s navel, and on the eve of the Buddha’s conception, his mother, Queen Maya, dreamt of a white elephant bearing a lotus flower in its trunk. Throughout Asia, the Buddha is often depicted atop of a fully bloomed lotus, as are many Hindu deities such as Lakshmi and Ganesha. Other Hindu deities are frequently found holding the flower in both its budding and blossomed state, and from Tibet to Thailand, the flower forms a common decorative motif in thousands of temples.
In Cambodia, Nelumba nucifera is most often found on the periphery of flooded rice paddies or in stagnant pagoda ponds. In other Asian countries, the plant’s flowers, leaves, stems, and rootstalks are prepared as garnishes and teas, or used as vegetables in salads and stir fries. The plant is also traditionally used for medicinal purposes—it contains the morphine-like alkaloids nuciferine and aporphine. Throughout the world, the lotus’ dried seed pods are used in floral arrangements, and in Burma, silk-like robes for monks and Buddha images are painstakingly woven from the fibres found in the lotus’ stalk.
To Cambodians, however, the lotus has one true function: its seeds are a tasty snack. The lotus’ fruit, or seed pod (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the spout of a common garden watering can), is commonly sold throughout the Khmer Kingdom. On a country road in Takeo province, this author bought four pods from a woman tending a stunning mosquito-riddled lotus plantation for one thousand riel (approx. $0.25 USD). Each pod contains nearly two dozen seeds.
To eat the seeds, use your fingers to break apart the firm and stringy flesh of the pod. Extract the seeds and peel off their thin green husks. While smaller hollow seeds are inedible, the larger, firmer seeds are absolutely delicious. Their soft, pulpy white flesh tastes like a juicy and slightly bitter peanut.
* * *
They eat, they drink, and nature gives the feast
The trees around them all their food produce:
Lotus the name: divine, nectareous juice!
(Thence call’d Lo’ophagi); which whose tastes,
Insatiate riots in the sweet repasts,
Nor other home, nor other care intends,
But quits his house, his country, and his friends.
The three we sent, from off the enchanting ground
We dragg’d reluctant, and by force we bound.
The rest in haste forsook the pleasing shore,
Or, the charm tasted, had return’d no more.
The Odyssey (Book IX)
Trans. by Alexander Pope