The lotus is an exotic plant that grows in muddy ponds or paddies in tropical climates. The rhizomes, which form fat links, are planted in the mud under water; new leaves emerge from them, the stems elongating so that the first two or three leaves float on top of the water. The stem continues to grow, and subsequent leaves stand above the water. The showy, fragrant flowers, usually pink or rose-colored but sometimes white, bloom in late summer.
The rhizome, or "root", of the lotus has been a delicacy in Oriental cooking for over a millennium. Its mild flavor combines well with most other vegetables, and its crunchy texture is appealing in stir-fried dishes or thinly sliced and deep-fried with or without batter. In Japan it is also enjoyed in vinegared specialties and simmered dishes. When the root is sliced into rounds, the several small tunnels that run the length of each link create a decorative pattern that can lend an artful touch to a meal.
Harvested only in fall and winter, fresh lotus root is difficult to find even when it is in season. If you are unable to find fresh lotus root, look for packages of dried sliced lotus in your natural food store. Dried lotus sold in Oriental markets is likely to be bleached, so be sure the label says "unbleached" before purchasing.