As wild as I can get: Warabi (Fiddlehead ferns)


Thanks to Caleb for bringing up a point of concern and confusion...

Outside of Hawaii, the term “Warabi” is applied to the unfurled fronds of the
Fernbracken (Pteridium aquilinum), also called simply Bracken (seen at left, with thanks to Crizzles). In the last 30 years or so, medical and chemical studies have linked chronic or excessive ingestion of Fernbracken by cattle and humans to esophageal and stomach tumors, and beriberi disease. Fernbracken can be found on every continent except Antartica, according to Wikipedia. It is used in traditional medicines of many cultures around the world, and is also a popular cooking ingredient (both the fronds and the rhizomes) in Japan and Korea. Recently concerns about a possible link between Fernbracken and gastric tumors has led authorities to caution people to limit their consumption of Fernbracken “warabi.” But according to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa, this does not apply to the Vegetable Fern below.

The frond of the Fernbracken looks different from that of its distant cousin, the Vegetable Fern (Diplazium esculentum, photo below), which is the focus of the original post below. Vegetable Fern (click on “5. Economic Uses” in this link) is found throughout Asia and Oceania (which includes Australia and Hawaii) and is a viable and safe food crop.

In Hawaii, the Vegetable Fern is sold as a fresh vegetable under the name “Ho‘i’o” or “Warabi,” which can lead to some confusion with the infamous Fernbracken. To make things even more confusing, in Hawaii (and elsewhere, including here in metro DC) you can find commercial preparations of pickled or cooked Fernbracken “Warabi” from Japan or Korea (in vacuum sealed packages) in the chilled aisles of Asian groceries — this is the warabi that should be consumed in limited amounts.

I will be very curious to see what is sold as fiddleheads in farmers’ markets in our new locale this spring. I don’t expect to see Vegetable Fern fronds, but maybe I’ll be in for a surprise!

Original Post

Warabi: fern or dragon?

As I've finally had a chance to sit down with one of the long-awaited cookbooks I received for Christmas, I've been haunted by the desire for wild greens. Laurie at Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, has written a cookbook to benefit the building of her local church in Alaska. The cookbook, "Tastes Like Home," is filled with recipes from the church's Greek Orthodox parishioners and are brought to life in the stories and histories Laurie has captured here. The most captivating ones for me are always those that feature fresh greens, but there is special emphasis in this book on wild greens. And so I'm itching for something wild, something green. I confess I don't know the first thing about hunting wild greens, especially here in the Islands, but I always pounce on anything that remotely resembles a wild green in a market.

Which is how I came to know this fernhead green, sold locally as warabi. I love the kind of dragon-in-waiting feel the lone fiddlehead has. Warabi is easy to clean and prepare. Here we flash-cooked it with garlic, olive oil and sea salt (see
Watercress post for cooking method). It lacks the bite, or slight bittterness, I crave with wild greens, but it's certainly a fun vegetable to work (and play) with! See also Sesame Warabi.
Raw warabiFlash-cooked warabi with garlic