Some years ago, when I had just arrived in Japan and absolutely everything was completely new to me I went out with a group of other Japan newbies and our “sempai,” or “seniors.” Our seniors had been living in Japan for some time. In the interest of showing us the ropes and introducing us to Japanese social life, they took us to a wonderfully unique Japanese establishment, the Izakaya bar. Izakayas have a wide menu of light snacks and side dishes along with an expansive drink menu. The best part is that the food is actually inexpensive (rare for Japan, unless you’re at a fast food joint) and the menus of the most popular Izakaya chains have pictures of everything and often English subtitles. They might even have an English menu! These menus are excellent for the gluten free diner, as they often include things that would be naturally gluten free like “Butter Potato” and “Butter Corn”, sashimi (raw fish), salt roasted fish, cold tofu (don’t add the wheat soy sauce) and an assortment of ice creams. I ate at a lot of Izakayas over the two years we lived in Japan, but that first trip was one of the most memorable as I had for the first time deep fried lotus root chips, also known as Renkon Chipusu. Our Sempai (seniors) established that there was no wheat in the chips, and I enjoyed the sweet, crunchy chip along with my beverages that night. I have always been a fan of fried potatoes (French fries) and other fried goods (mostly in my own kitchen), but those fried chips were probably the best fried thing I’d ever had for their delicate, beautiful structure and sweet, crunchy fried goodness. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to have them anyway, because fried things are usually fried communally in a fryer and there are lots of very wheaty fried goods at any izakaya worth its salt. But, happily, I felt fine afterwards and I had just discovered my first new Japanese vegetable, the renkon, or lotus root as it is called in English. Sadly, after that one divine experience I was never able to find renkon chips that hadn’t been coated in wheat, as the chain we went to changed its recipe, but I was then inspired to create my own versions of those tasty, tasty chips. Because I rarely fry foods, I decided it made more sense to create a healthier, non fried version for home snacking. I came up with two winning recipes, and the one below is my most recent lotus root chip recipe.
The lotus root is not as common here in the States as it is in Japan and other regions of Asia, so let me introduce it to you. The lotus plant is “planted in the soil of the pond or river bottom, while the leaves float on top of the water surface. The flowers are usually found on thick stems rising several centimeters above the water. . . . Lotus roots (called bhe in some parts of India and Pakistan, and renkon in Japan) are used as a vegetable [and are] rich in dietary fiber, vitamin C, potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, copper and manganese while very low in saturated fat.” (source: Wikipedia) You can also read about the Lotus Root at Chow.
You should be able to buy lotus root at your local Chinese, Japanese, or Korean grocery store. Be careful when picking out your lotus root- sometimes it is fresher than others, and you don’t want old, moldy lotus root. Trust me on this. The exterior should be uniform, light brown without dark spots. Sometimes it is sold untrimmed, so you can’t see the holes. If so, check the stems for any white mold. If you can see the holes, they should be light and clear, without brown spots or anything growing inside them. They should feel firm to the touch. If you bring one home and it has a minor brown spot, cut it out. This vegetable might be hard to find in your area, but it is usually reasonably priced and is well worth the effort. It remains my favorite “new” vegetable that I discovered in Japan. *nostalgic sniff” It’s rare that one finds a vegetable that is as tasty as it is beautiful, but the lotus root succeeds on both points.
If you want more Lotus Root Recipes, try
the Fat Free Vegan’s recipe for Microwaved Lotus Root Chip Recipe
Mm-Yosa’s Japanese Style Stuffed Lotus Root Recipe (Non-veg)
Gotham Gal’s Simmered Lotus Root Recipe
an innovative chef’s Butter Renkon recipe (Non-veg)
Onokine Grindz’ Lotus Root Rice Recipe
Baked Renkon Chip Recipe
3 trimmed lotus roots (renkon, 蓮根 れんこん）
pasta seasoning blend (trader joes or Spice Hunter)
Peel your lotus roots and immediately immerse them in water, adding at least a tablespoon of vinegar to keep them from browning. Heat your oven to 375 degrees F. Use a food processor or mandoline to thinly slice lotus root chips, immerse them in your vinegar water until ready to bake. Dry off chips in salad spinner or wrap in a towel. When dry, place on a dark baking sheet and sprinkle with pasta seasonings and drizzle a little olive oil on the chips. Mix them so that the oil and seasoning is evenly distributed, and then place the chips on your baking sheet in a single layer, with no overlapping. If you have too many chips, reserve some for a second batch. Set your timer for 10 minutes, and bake your chips. (If you got paper thin chips with a mandoline, use less time- this time is for food processor sliced chips). At the ten minute mark, turn over your chips carefully. They may slightly stick to the surface of your baking sheet. Bake for five more minutes. You should be able to see white starch on the top of your chips at this point. Turn over your chips one more time and bake for five minutes. If your chips are nicely golden, then plate. If they are not golden, turn them over one more time and put them back in the oven, checking on them every few minutes. Don’t overbake! When golden but not entirely brown, plate your chips and salt them lightly. Enjoy!
This is a healthy adaption of a greasy izakaya classic. Try them deep fried if you are feeling decadent and they would probably rate a 9.