Lily Buds

金針 mandarin: jin-jun; Cantonese: gum-jum)

These are unopened dried tiger lillies (Lilium lancifolium)—the gold or orange lilies that grow in many American gardens—which are dried by the Chinese and used as a texture element and gentle taste in several classic dishes, most notably hot and sour soup and mu-shu pork. The flowers dry to a dark brown blushed with gold and measure about 4 inches long and about ⅛ inch wide (slightly broader at the tip), hence the Chinese name, “golden needles.” The flowers, typically called lily buds in English, are sold in a large tangle, bagged in cellophane. When dry, they have a distinctive, powerful smell. (Once, when vacationing at a hot-springs in the middle of Taiwan, I was stranded in a tiny village owing to the collapse of a rope bridge that hung breathtakingly across an immense chasm and was the only way from the village into the town. The village depended entirely on the hot springs and the cultivation of lily buds, so I alternately bathed and ate the flowers for one very long week. It took me years before I could eat another and not associate their smell with a sulfurous bath!)

To use lily buds, soak them in warm or cool water to cover until fully supple, 20–30 minutes usually, depending upon the temperature of the water. Drain, rinse, then snip off any knobby stem ends with scissors (sometimes the flower-plucker has done the job for you). Then, the bud is alternatively shredded, cut in half lengthwise, or used whole.
Lily buds keep forever, sealed in a jar or an airtight cellophane bag at room temperature, away from light, heat, and moisture. So long as they are on the soft side and smelly, they are good. (By the way, the smell goes away once they are soaked, leaving only a pale, floral scent.)