Fiddlehead gastronomy

You know you’ve arrived in Maine when the supermarket has a fern fiddlehead special in the produce section:


And Portland restaurants find ways of preparing the ferny curls with chard and dressing:


And, a few weeks later, when the wild ferns have fully unfurled, the remnant kitchen fiddleheads are roasted and turned to soup:


Ferns are well defended both mechanically (tough to chew on) and chemically (how many insects do you see munching on fern leaves?), so they seldom appear on human plates. After a long winter, though, anything green looks good to vitamin-starved mammals, so people cut the young unfurling fronds of ostrich fern — fern furls curtailed forever, very poignant — and eat them raw, lightly steamed, or roasted. Ferns can bear a small amount of harvesting, but repeated cutting will kill the plant.

Ferns are also harvested for food in Korea and Japan, always as fiddleheads. I’d be interested to know of examples from other cultures. In the non-human realm, the European woodmouse loves to chew on ferns, perhaps echoing the dietary preferences of sauropod dinosaurs?


13 thoughts on “Fiddlehead gastronomy

  1. Anonymous

    In Sarawak, at least two species of ferns are commonly eaten as fiddleheads – midin and paku ikan. You can look up the species. In NZ, there is a fern dish called pikopiko.

  2. kathrynslife

    Growing up in the north of England we ate both harts tongue (Phyllitis scolopendrium) and bracken. In both cases they were boiled – the bracken longer than the harts tongue – and the water discarded before they were finished in the frying pan with a little butter. The bracken is, of course, carcinogenic, but I’m guessing that my parents, who were well aware of this, thought that two or three treats in the spring was not a very great risk

      1. kathrynslife

        Leave a building alone in the limestone country in North Yorkshire and it will be all along the foot in no time, and it grows all along the dry stone walls. Here in Ireland it is even more common – it recently decided to colonise the damp foot of my barn walls, fighting it out with a couple of dryopteras for territory. Since the latter aren’t part of my traditional foraging culture I haven’t tried them. But I did plant several ostrich ferns recently with the idea that they’d be edible/decorative when the crowns get big.

  3. Karen Pick

    Here in Quebec they’re considered toxic when raw. They’re always eaten boiled (some people even change the water a couple of times) or at the very least parboiled before being stir-fried. Surprised they’re still in season in Maine. Season way over here!

  4. Anonymous

    So that is what was in the dish I got at Mitsitam, the amazing restaurant in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian! I loved it for its shape, color, and crunchiness but had no idea what I was eating so thank you. Its featured on the cover of their book too!


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