Boiled Water Caltrop 鮮煮菱角
By Ellen L.Published: 2014-09-09
Nope...these things are not the deadly bat shaped ninja weapons that you're thinking they might be. Rather, these are Water Caltrops, or 菱角, which are probably some of the funkiest, strangest nuts that ever existed. I mean, who would know that these are 1) made by Mother Nature herself and 2) that one could actually eat these?! It looks way too dangerous to eat! But it turns out that these mysterious nuts from an aquatic plant similar to the water lily has been cultivated and eaten in different countries for centuries. The water caltrop even shows up as a motif in one of my favorite books of all time, The Dream of the Red Chamber, where one of the minor characters is even named Xiang Ling 香菱, translated to mean Fragrant Water Caltrop. (You have to read this novel, it's so amazing!)
These luminous looking water caltrops come to season around the time of the Chinese Mid Autumn Festival and are an important part of traditional festivities.
Why, you say, would these weird looking nuts play a part in our lovely Chinese Mid Autumn Festival? Well they look like bats and bats are lucky for the Chinese because the chinese words for bat has a 'fu' sound in it that sounds similar to 福, which is the word for luck.
The preparation is simple, you just need to boil them. Don't try these raw, though, they've got to be cooked. The funny thing is that after you cook them, they look exactly like they did before you cooked it. Never seen anything do that before!
Once cooked and cooled, this devilish nut has to be opened. Yiks! What to do?! You must understand, if you have never beheld a Water Caltrop before, that this nut is one smooth hard as a stone piece of work, seemingly cast at one go from solid black. What we finally ended up using was our teeth, very, very carefully avoiding the sharp curving horns on each side. It turns out that once the Water Caltrop is cooked, the nut is softened enough to where as few well placed and strong bites will crack the fruit. Then you can just slowly peel off the shells. (Or you could just use your nutcracker !)
|Water Caltrop Plant|
|Lithograph, Carl Hoffman 1890|
Water Caltrop Plant illustration bottom right
The white meat inside the nut inside tastes rather like a combo of roasted chestnut and cooked potato, only much more concentrated and only slightly sweet. It's an interesting mild taste and the texture is slightly hard and crumbly. I have read that in Taiwan these bat nuts are roasted as a street snack. Has anyone tried these street side roasted Water Caltrops? Would love to know more about that.
Last, but not least is the fun of these Water Caltrops for the children. Show a child one of these shiny incredibly shaped nuts and watch their eyes grow big with wonder and excitement! I think that must be a part of the reason these Water Caltrop nuts became associated to the Mid Autumn Festival, which has so many children centric activities (like lantern swinging/moongazing/general running around in the light of the full moon!) Children just love these weird bat like nuts and will play with them for hours. My little girl did just that for the whole night and we ended up with bats flying everywhere in the house. Just be sure and tell them to be careful of the bat wings and not to stab anyone with them! Happy Chinese Mid Autumn Festival to all!
Boiled Water Caltrop Recipe 鮮煮菱角
20 water caltrops
1 star anise
1 tsp salt
Wash water caltrop. Fill small pot with enough water to generously cover nuts. When water is boiled, add star anise, salt and water caltrops. Let cook, half covered, over medium heat for 30 minutes. Add boiled water as needed if the water level gets low. Strain out of pot and let cool. When water caltrop is cooled, you can crack them with your teeth (carefully!) or use a nutcracker and eat the white seed inside. Happy Mid Autumn Festival!
More Mid Autumn Festival Fun at The Hong Kong Cookery: