Sat, Apr 16, 2016 - Page 12 News List

A bit of a fiddle

The tender shoots of the fiddlehead fern are not widely available outside of locations specializing in Taiwan’s aboriginal cuisine, but they are definitely worth seeking out during the spring, when they are at their sweetest and most tender

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Fillet of mahi-mahi served with cold fiddlehead fern, homemade black sesame seed mayonnaise and kabocha puree.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

The fiddlehead fern is very much associated with foraged or wild food in Taiwan, and has acquired an affinity with the island’s aboriginal cuisine. Its appearance in the market is a herald of spring. Here in Hualien, Amis women, who are keen foragers, usually sell it and it has more recently made its appearance in supermarkets.

Fiddlehead fern is gradually poking at the fringes of the mainstream, but many people balk at the unfamiliar green with its peculiar Chinese-language names, gueiniao (過貓) in Hoklo or guogou vegetable (過溝菜), which makes it even more exotic than bird’s nest fern (山蘇), another foraged fern that has managed to gain greater acceptance in Taiwan’s culinary tradition.

The scientific name for gueiniao is Diplazium esculentum, and it comes in a variety of forms, from thick firm stems with a pronounced whorl at the top that clearly makes sense of the plant’s English name, to tender pale green shoots with just the slightest hint of a curl at the top. The former are most often collected in the mountains, while the fine shoots can be found in forest areas or even growing wild in fruit orchards.

Fiddlehead fern is now sometimes served in local eateries, either stir fried or as a cold plate seasoned with a dressing of soy, sesame seeds, sugar and vinegar. Although they can be very tender, it is not recommended to use fiddlehead ferns raw. The Kitchn Web site suggests that raw fiddlehead fern may contain microbes that have been known to cause illness. There have been reports in the local media suggesting fiddlehead fern might be carcinogenic, but the general consensus from cooking and health Web sites is that the ptaquiloside it contains, while toxic, is water soluble and a quick immersion in boiling water is sufficient to render it harmless.

If serving cold, blanch the fiddlehead fern in boiling water for about 30 seconds then immerse immediately in a bowl of ice water. The latter process will immediately stop the cooking process, ensuring that the fern retains crispness and its beautiful green color. With tender shoots, failure to shock in cold water can lead the fronds being reduced to an unappetizing mush as residual heat continues to cook the greens after their removal from the hot water.

These concerns aside, the fern is regarded as an excellent source of omega-3 and omega-6. It is rich in iron, potassium, vitamins A, C, B2 and B6 and dietary fiber. It is widely regarded as being excellent for aiding digestion and for its benefits to the skin and nervous system.

Mahi-Mahi with Fiddlehead Fern, Homemade Black Sesame Seed Mayonnaise and Kabocha Puree

Mahi-mahi is a glorious fish that makes lovely firm fillets. It is best served with flavorful sauces, and is particularly good in curry, but this recipe attempts to pull back and give a chance for the fish’s excellent flavor to speak for itself. Mahi-mahi is also good as a local fish caught widely off the Taiwan coast, and does not face the same sustainability issues as higher-end fish such as tuna or cod. This dish also incorporates kabocha, also called Japanese pumpkin, which is currently in season, and which will be covered here in the near future. It has a rich flavor that many regard as superior to butternut squash, and a texture that is somewhere between pumpkin and sweet potato.

Recipe (serves 4)

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