The Rags To Riches Story Of Fiddlehead Fern
Of late, many of the food items that I used to have in my childhood - often forced down my throat by my very persistent, well-meaning Mom! - are making a comeback into not just home kitchens but even gourmet kitchens in upscale restaurants, trending madly on social media and creating food fads across the world. One such ingredient on my rediscovery radar is the Fiddlehead Fern, known as Dheki Shaak in Bengali, Lungru’ in Himachal Pradesh, and rather poetically Tete de Violon in French because of its resemblance to the coiled tip of a violin or fiddle head.
When I used to eat the fiddlehead fern as a school girl, my favourite preparation was a quick and simple crisp fried fern. The tightly-coiled heads were as quirky to look at as they were tasty to eat. But had it not been for Mom’s thrilling stories around the foraging of the fern, I would not have gone past the first mouthful, exasperating as I was at mealtimes! She would tell me that the foragers ran a very real risk of snakebites as it was a wild vegetable that had to be cut close to the ground, before it unfurled into a full fern leaf, and snakes normally nested in the fern’s undergrowth. The plight of the poor gatherers was enough to guilt me into polishing off my meal!
Partly due to the intrigue behind the foraging activity, and due to its short season from late winter to early spring, but mostly because it’s a great source of vitamins A and C, Omega 3, minerals and electrolytes, this fern has suddenly piqued the interests of food aficionados and cooks of the country. A few top restaurants too are plating up this fern as an interesting garnish or a bright green side.
But, whereas you may chance upon this fern for around Rs. 15-25 for a bunch at your local bhaajiwala, who may deign to sell it with other unusual leafy greens like kalmi, arbi patta or bathua, our European and American friends are not as lucky. Considered a gourmet delicacy and a vegan’s delight internationally, the fiddlehead fern can sell for as much as $50 a pound!
The unique flavour of this green wonder and its asparagus-like texture lends itself to many different recipes. Take your pick from Asian broths and salads to European sautes and bakes, to traditional Himalayan curries and pickles, to the humble ol’ north east Indian shaak, sometimes spruced up with tiny fried shrimps. Or, discover your own way of cooking up this wild gift from Mother Nature. You too will fall in love with it, just as I have, all over again…
The next time you pick up a bunch of fiddlehead fern locally, or maybe go foraging into the woods for it, try out this super-quick simple recipe prepared with prawns.
Recipe for Fiddlehead Fern with Prawns
3 cups of fiddlehead fern
1 cup fresh prawns, cleaned, deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp butter
½ tsp red chilli flakes
1 tsp fresh lemon juice plus 1 lemon wedge for garnish
¼ tsp lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Trim the brown bits off the fern leaves. Chop the stems into 2 inch pieces, leave the coils intact and wash thoroughly with water.
2. Bring 1 litre water to boil in a large pan, add a large pinch of salt, and drop the fern into it to blanch for about 3 minutes. Drain, cool and set aside.
3. In a pan, melt 1 tbsp butter. Add the chilli flakes and garlic, then add the prawns with a pinch of salt and saute for about 2 mins on medium flame. Remove the prawns onto a tissue to drain off excess oil.
4. Now add the remaining butter to the pan and saute the blanched fern for 2-3 minutes, until the excess water dries up.
5. Now add the cooked prawns, lemon juice, a dash of pepper and salt to taste and cook for another 2 minutes.
6. Remove from pan onto a serving dish. Sprinkle lemon zest on top, and garnish with a wedge of lemon.