Fiddleheads or Fiddlehead greens are the furled fronds of a young fern, harvested for use as a vegetable. Left on the plant, each fiddlehead would unroll into a new frond (circinate vernation). As fiddleheads are harvested early in the season before the frond has opened and reached its full height, they are cut fairly close to the ground.
The fiddlehead resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. It is also called a crozier, after the curved staff used by bishops, which has its origins in the shepherd's crook.
The fiddleheads of certain ferns are eaten as a cooked leaf vegetable. The most popular of these are:
- Western sword fern, Polystichum munitum, "king of northwest ferns."
- Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, found worldwide (Health Warning)
- Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, found in northern regions worldwide, and the central/eastern part of North America (Health Warning)
- Lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina, throughout most of the temperate northern hemisphere.
- Cinnamon fern or buckhorn fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, found in the Eastern parts of North America, although not so palatable as ostrich fern.
- Royal fern, Osmunda regalis, found worldwide
- Zenmai or flowering fern, Osmunda japonica, found in East Asia
- Vegetable fern, Athyrium esculentum, found throughout Asia and Oceania
Fiddleheads' ornamental value makes them very expensive in the temperate regions where they are not abundant.
Sources and harvesting
Though available regionally in some supermarkets and restaurants, fiddleheads are not cultivated and are available only seasonally. In rural areas, fiddleheads are harvested by individuals in early spring. When picking fiddleheads, three tops per plant is the recommended harvest. Each plant produces seven tops that turn into fronds; over-picking will kill the plant. Maintaining sustainable harvesting methods is important in the propagation of any non-farmed food species.
In Indonesia, young fiddlehead ferns are cooked in a rich coconut sauce spiced with chili pepper, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric leaves and other spices. This dish is called "gulai pakis" or "gulai paku", and originated from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Indonesia.
In East Asia, fiddleheads of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) are eaten as a vegetable, called Dhekiya in Assam, warabi (蕨) in Japan, gosari (고사리) in Korea, and juécài (蕨菜) in China and Taiwan. In Korea, a typical banchan (small side dish) is gosari-namul (고사리나물) that consists of prepared fernbrake fiddleheads that have been sauteed. It is a component of the popular dish bibimbap. In Japan, bracken fiddleheads are a prized dish, and roasting the fiddleheads is reputed to neutralize any toxins in the vegetable.
In Japan, fiddleheads of flowering fern (Osmunda japonica), known as zenmai (薇) in Japanese, as well as those of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), known as kogomi (コゴミ), are commonly eaten in springtime. Fiddleheads in Japan are considered sansai, or wild vegetables.
In the Indian subcontinent, it is found in the Himalayan North and North Eastern states of India. In the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh, it is known locally as "lingri" and is famously used to make a pickle "lingri ka achaar". In the Kangra Valley of Himachal it is called "Lungdu" in the local Kangri Pahari language. In garhwal region in Uttarakhand, it is called "languda" and eaten as a vegetable. In Nepal, Darjeeling and Sikkim regions, it is called निगुरो ningro and is well loved as a vegetable side dish, often mixed with local cheese. It is also pickled. In Assam, it is known as "dhekia xaak"; there it is a popular side dish.
North American cooking
Ostrich ferns, known locally as fiddlehead ferns, grow wild in wet areas of Northeastern North America in spring. Fiddleheads are a traditional dish of northern New England (especially Maine) in the United States, and of Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes in Canada. The Canadian village of Tide Head, New Brunswick, bills itself as the "Fiddlehead Capital of the World." Fiddleheads are also exported fresh and frozen. They are typically steamed or boiled before being eaten hot, with hollandaise sauce, butter and lemon or vinegar, or chilled, in salad or with mayonnaise.
For the Maliseet, fiddleheads were considered to be medicinal as well as a foodstuff and were gathered in quantity during the relatively brief season before they unfurl.
To cook fiddleheads, it is advised to remove the yellow/brown skin, then boil the sprouts twice with a change of water between boilings. Removing the water reduces the bitterness and the content of tannins and toxins. The Centers for Disease Control associated a number of food-borne illness cases with fiddleheads in the early 1990s. Although they did not identify a toxin in the fiddleheads, the findings of that case suggest that fiddleheads should be cooked thoroughly before eating. The cooking time recommended by health authorities is 15 minutes if boiled and 10 to 12 minutes if steamed. The cooking method recommended by gourmets is to spread a thin layer in a steam basket and steam lightly, just until tender crisp.
Fiddleheads are available in the market for only a few weeks in springtime, and are fairly expensive. Pickled and frozen fiddleheads, however, can be found in some shops year-round.
Fiddleheads contain various vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They are a source of antioxidants and dietary fibre. They are low in sodium, but rich in potassium, which may make them suitable for people who need a low-sodium diet.
Fiddleheads may harbour microbes, and should be washed and cooked before eating.
Many ferns also contain the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine. This can lead to beriberi and other vitamin B complex deficiencies if consumed to excess or if one's diet is lacking in these vitamins.
Further, there is some evidence that certain varieties of fiddleheads, e.g. bracken (Pteridium genus), are carcinogenic. It is recommended to roast fiddleheads to destroy the shikimic acid. Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is not thought to cause cancer, although there is evidence it contains an as yet unidentified toxin.
- C.Michael Hogan. 2010. Fern. Encyclopedia of Earth. National council for Science and the Environment. Washington, DC
- Agriculture Canada Study
- "Fiddleheads Food Safety Tips". Health Canada. 2010-08-10. Retrieved 2011-03-28.
- Bushway, A. A.; Wilson, A. M.; McGann, D. F.; Bushway, R. J. (1982). "The Nutrient Composition of Fresh Fiddlehead Greens". Journal of Food Science 47: 666. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2621.1982.tb10147.x.
- Evans, W. C. (1976). "Bracken thiaminase-mediated neurotoxic syndromes". Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 73: 113. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.1976.tb02017.x.
- Carcinogenicity of bracken and shikimic acid. I. A. Evans and M. A. Osman, Nature, 26 July 1974, volume 250, pages 348 - 349, doi:10.1038/250348a0
- "Possible Hazards of Eating Bracken Fern". New England Journal of Medicine. Massachusetts Medical Society. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
- "Ostrich Fern Poisoning -- New York and Western Canada, 1994". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
- Lyon, Amy, and Lynne Andreen. In a Vermont Kitchen. HP Books: 1999. ISBN 1-55788-316-5. pp 68–69.
- Strickland, Ron. Vermonters: Oral Histories from Down Country to the Northeast Kingdom. New England Press: 1986. ISBN 0-87451-867-9.
- Barrett, L.E. and Diket, Lin. FiddleMainia. WaveCloud Corporation: 2014. ISBN 978-1622171040.
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