The second lake I visited on my brief visit to Romania makes it almost impossible to avoid mentioning two of Romania’s most infamous citizens. Lacul Snagov, about 40 km north of Bucharest, is surrounded by the weekend villas of Romania’s current and past elite, including the notorious Nicolei Ceauşescu. That connection, however, pales beside that of a monastery on an island in the lake, reputed to contain the grave of Vlad the Impaler, better known to the rest of the world as Dracula. This is mostly due to Bram Stoker’s novel although he never actually visited Romania. His interpretation of the Dracula legend was based partly on hearsay, but largely on his own vivid imagination, much to the despair of modern Romanians.
Whereas Lacul Cāldāruşani had turbid phytoplankton-rich water, Lacul Snagov was much clearer, with a varied assortment of submerged plant visible below the surface as we travelled across the lake in an inflatable boat. Large areas of the surface were covered with water lilies, a mixture of Nymphaea alba, the common white water lily, and, of more interest to me, the Indian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. As the name suggests, it is native to Asia: I have seen this growing in Bangladesh, and eaten it in Korea and China, but here it was growing in abundance in a European lake. The term “invasive species” has been applied to Indian lotus but, like many visually attractive plants, the “invasion” was helped by human agents. Records of lotus in Snagov go back to 1955, and now it covers large areas of the lake surface. There is some evidence that the spread of Nelumbo nucifera has altered the composition of other plants in the lake, albeit without detracting seriously from the visual aesthetics (see image above).
The topic of invasive plants and animals is controversial, and is one that can make usually mild-mannered ecologists sound like rabid xenophobes. I enjoyed Ken Thompson’s recent book “Where do Camels Belong?” which questioned the whole concept of a “native species” in an ever-changing landscape. If you cannot define a “native” species securely, argues Thompson, then nor should we rush to attach labels such as “invasive” or “alien” to non-native species. Judge each on its merits.
And Nelumbo nucifera does have several merits. There is the rather beautiful flower for example and, lurking in the bottom muds, a less attractive but very tasty rhizome. We rarely encounter it in western cuisine, or even in Chinese restaurants in the West, but you can buy it frozen from Chinese supermarkets. Were Europeans to follow the Asiatic lead, then a solution to this particular “invasive species” problem presents itself. This tangential line of thought started with a blog by my wife Heather on a native British species, Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard) that happens to be regarded as an invasive weed in north America. Her internet searches led her to an entire cookbook devoted to ridding the world of this one weed (“From Pest to Pesto: Eat it to Beat it”) and I can vouch for the gastronomic qualities of British populations as a result.
In the same vein, here is my first attempt at cooking and eating lotus roots, admittedly based on frozen, rather than foraged, lotus and inspired by my recent trip to China: boil about half a kilogram of (thawed) lotus roots for a few minutes, until just tender, drain and dry. Roast a tablespoon of sesame seeds until they are brown. Heat some sesame oil until hot, then stir fry the lotus roots along with two tablespoons of finely-chopped spring onions and a finely-chopped clove of garlic for a couple of minutes. Add one or two tablespoons of light soy sauce (enough to coat the lotus roots) and finally stir in the sesame seeds. Stir it for another minute or so, then serve.
Repeat this until the invasive species has disappeared. It’s called “biological control”.
Anastasiu, P., Negrean, G., Başnou, C., Sîrbu, C. & Oprea, A. (2007). A preliminary study on the neophytes of wetlands in Romania. In: Rabitsch, W., F. Essl & F. Klingenstein (Eds.): Biological Invasions – from Ecology to Conservation. NEOBIOTA 7: 181-192.
Thompson, K. (2015). Where do Camels Belong? Profile Books, London.