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.
Fiddleheads have antioxidant activity, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fibre. Certain varieties of fiddleheads have been shown to be carcinogenic. (See bracken poisoning)
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 (Toxic if not cooked fully)
- 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
- Midin, or Stenochlaena palustris, found in Sarawak, where it is prized as a local delicacy
- 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[where?] in some supermarkets and restaurants, fiddleheads are not cultivated and are available only seasonally. In rural areas, such as western Massachusetts, fiddleheads are harvested by individuals in early spring. When picking fiddleheads, three tops per plant is the recommended[by whom?] 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.
Fiddleheads have been part of traditional diets in much of Northern France since the beginning of the Middle Ages, Asia as well as among Native Americans for centuries. The are also part the diet in the Russian Far East, where they are often picked in the wild in autumn, preserved in salt over winter, and then consumed in spring.
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 the Philippines, fiddlehead fern or pakô, is a delicacy, often made into a salad with tomato, salted egg slices, and a simple vinaigrette dressing.
In East Asia, fiddleheads of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) are eaten as a vegetable, called 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), which consists of prepared fernbrake fiddleheads that have been sauteed. It is also 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), 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 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 Assam, it is known as dhekia xaak; there it is a popular side dish.
In Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, it's known as kasrod (कसरोड). The most famous Dogra dish is kasrod ka achaar (fiddlehead fern pickle). It's also cooked as a dry vegetable side dish to be eaten with rotis or paranthas.
In Nepal, it is a seasonal food and is called niyuro (नियुरो) and is well loved as a vegetable side dish, often cooked in local clarified butter. It is also pickled.
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 brown papery husk before washing in several changes of cold water, then boil or steam them. Boiling 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.
Fresh 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.
Further, there is some evidence that certain varieties of fiddleheads, e.g. bracken (Pteridium genus), are carcinogenic. It is recommended to fully cook fiddleheads to destroy the shikimic acid. Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is not thought to cause cancer, although there is evidence it contains a toxin unidentified as yet.
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- 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 978-1-62217-164-4.
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