Sat, Jan 09, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Ferns on your plate

The bird’s nest fern is often thought of as a parasite, or at best an ornamental plant, but it also proves to be a delicious vegetable once you get past first appearances

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Bird’s nest ferns are nutritious and crunchy, and their intense greenness provides wonderful color to any dish.

Photo by Ian Bartholomew

I had never thought that eating bird’s nest fern (山蘇) was even a possibility until I came to Taiwan. This is a plant that is probably familiar to someone who has lived in Southeast Asia, but more likely as an ornamental plant than part of a living larder. It features strongly in the cuisine of local Aboriginal tribes, and has recently crossed over into the mainstream with considerable success. Although it’s now often cultivated for commercial sale, it still remains something of an exotic, retaining its “foraged” cred.

In my early and tentative exploration of Taiwan’s culinary culture, I bought into the idea that these foraged vegetables required special skills to prepare well. I enjoyed eating bird’s nest fern in restaurants that specialized in “wild” food, secure in the knowledge that preparation of this exotic morsel was best kept in the hands of specialists. After moving to Hualien, I was again confronted with the fern, and thought I would give it another chance. And it proved yet an eye opener. A little bit of care with washing the leaves and cutting away the more fibrous stems, and then there is no mystery at all. While not remarkably flavorful, they provide a lovely crisp crunch and are great for carrying other strong flavors.

One of the most common preparations of bird’s nest fern is fried together with salted dried anchovies and preserved cordia dichotoma (破布子). This preparation is widely available in restaurants and is a perfect accompaniment to a Taiwanese seafood meal.

The first thing to know about bird’s nest fern is to check that the leaves are perfectly green and have not been burnt by too much sunlight. The edible portion of the plant are the tender shoots, which are easily damaged, and when shopping at the market, you want to look for the deep and unblemished emerald green that really glistens on the plate.

Bird’s nest fern bought at the supermarket has usually been cleaned to some degree, but if purchased from a traditional market, it is best to check the leaves carefully, wiping off dirt and bugs that may adhere to the leaves — which will not be removed by a simple wash of water. As the texture is best with only a very rapid cooking, it is also advisable to cut away some of the thicker veins at the center of the leaf.

Blanching the leaves in salted water helps hold the lovely green color in any subsequent preparation. If you really want to keep things simple, just take the blanched leaves and top them with some mayo or a lighter dressing of sesame oil and soy, and you have a dish ready to go. They are also very nice deep-fried in a light batter.

In Taiwan, bird’s nest fern was traditionally considered a “mountain” vegetable, and therefore generally free from the worst excesses of chemical pesticide use. It is now widely grown in the plains as a secondary crop to betel nut by small scale farmers, which cannot but be a good thing. The plant has various uses as an herbal remedy in Southeast Asian folk medicine, thought to be a diuretic that is beneficial for bladder complaints. In Taiwan, it is widely thought of as having qualities that assist in the prevention of cancer.

While these claims await more scientific corroboration, as a wild vegetable that has yet to be subject to the tender mercies of agribusiness, bird’s leaf fern, if probably remarkably free of unwelcome tampering and is one of the healthiest veg options on the market right now. It is rich in calcium, iron and zinc, is a good source of protein and dietary fiber, and with its interesting texture, will also put some variety into your meals.

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