Lily Bulb – Exotic Chinese Food series 105


bulbus lilii is a type of lily bulb that is eaten as food. this is a flowering lily but is not the same species as the decorative lilies that are used as garden flowers. edible lily bulbs are starchy bulbs grown in northern china , in ganzu province at high altitude from 6,500 feet to 10,000 feet. they’re also known as “lanzhou lily”. lily bulbs are considered a health food and is used in chinese medicine for heart and lung ailments.package.jpg

lily bulbs are sold in a vacuum sealed package of three bulbs for $1.50, and can be found in vegetable stores in chinatown. i discovered them when i was in de gustibus, during a class taught by troy dupuy, the last chef of the famous french restaurant la caravelle (which was a bastion of new york society eaters for 43 years). at de gustibus (where i was a chef assistant), one class was held each day, and each was taught by a different famous chef , who usually brought three or four of their sous chefs and their pastry chef, along with their fabulous restaurants’  food. (the owner of de gustibus’ husband is the dean of the french culinary institute).

on this day, i saw that there were baby bok choy and chinese purple eggplant on the plates. i looked around and noticed that the chef de cuisine was chinese american. i asked him why these chinese veggies were being used in a two star french restaurant. he told me that they wanted to use different and unusual vegetables, and bought veggies from chinatown. he then gave me a package of lily bulbs to take home and cook myself, and that’s how i discovered this rather obscure but delicate bulb.

*note – do not eat just any old lily bulb that you find in your garden because there are several species of lilies used to make soap which are toxic. buy only the safe, packaged for food bulbs as in the photo above.


lily bulbs are about twice the size of shallots, and slices up like a baby fennel bulb. they resemble onions but do not have the pungency (no tears), and is more starchy. i like to saute them in butter and olive oil, adding bits of water to keep it moist while it cooks through. lily bulbs were recorded in the yellow emperor’s classic of medicine, the most seminal ancient chinese medical text, dated 200 b.c.e.. in china, there were four kinds of royal doctors, and one of them was the dietetic doctor who prepared the emperor’s diet. lily bulbs were included in a healthful medical diet to prevent disease and promote health.


one package of three lily bulbs cuts up into a good two cups . i sauteed these by themselves with soy sauce so that i could taste them fully. they have a starchy feel and a mild earthy taste. some people like to parboil them first to remove the slight bitterness, and then add them to a dish. lily bulbs can be used in the same way as any other veggie , as a side dish , or mixed in with meats and veggies. it’d be good in an omelette too … you can impress your friends and tell them you’re making them a lily bulb omelette. sounds exotic but is really no fuss at all.

every vegetable has its own nutrient profile, so it’s a good idea to eat as much variety as possible, to get as many diverse and trace nutrients, which is not possible if you eat the same three things all the time (as a lot of us do). the shy but healthy-for-you lily bulb is worth adopting into your repertoire of edibles .

copyright 2009 Jo Jo Kwong.  all rights reserved.

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Filed under asian food

5 responses to “Lily Bulb – Exotic Chinese Food series 105

  1. Pingback: Sufficiently Chinese « FUSSYlittleBLOG

  2. Bill

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  3. Thank you! This is just the information I needed. I have a recipe for lily bulb but didn’t know what it looked like or how to find it. The photo and info is very helpful. I appreciate it.

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