The ability of the human mind to retain and remember continues to intrigue me as I grow older. Whenever I look back at the phase of life when I was in school, sometime before teenage hit and the time behind it, I remember less of things conspicuously. I try harder then, often attempting to hold thoughts, almost in a grip. Like heaps of falling sand, flashes of time seem to fade away, and that's when the value and purpose of my blog becomes clearer, and stronger to me.
The story of kasrod (as fiddlehead ferns are called in Jammu and in Himachal), is one such tale of time slipping and me trying to hold onto what I recall. There are many names of fiddlehead in India. Lingri in the Kullu valley while lungdu in the Kangda valley and kasrod in Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, lingdu in Garhwal while kaaron in Kumaon in Uttarakhand, niyuro in Sikkim (and Nepal), dhekia xak in Assam, kasrod in Jammu and Kashmir and therme thoppu in Coorg. I somehow always call it kasrod because that's how I first came to know it in Katra.
Growing up, holidays were usually to places that had some spiritual significance. No surprises that my parents took me and my sisters to visit the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu when I was about 10-12 years old. Following an overnight train journey from Delhi to Jammu, few hours of halt, and a 50-km taxi trip through winding roads and cool mountain winds, we arrived in Katra, from where we trekked 12 km to the temple.
I remember the kasrod ka achar, fiddlehead ferns pickle, served with with our meals during that trip. Steaming hot rice, Mah da Madra (Urad dal cooked with yogurt) or Kulthi ki Dal (horsegram) and tablespoons of the fiddlehead pickle on a steel plate are prominent in those obscure memories of the hills. That was my first encounter with fiddlehead, fermented in coats of mustard, chili and turmeric with the punch of salt binding them all. I was excited to take a picture of that bowl of dal-chawal topped with fiddlehead but our humble camera had exhausted its battery. Phones didn't have cameras then! Honestly, my parents weren't enthusiastic about food photos although I can't say I had anything else but curiosity about new ingredients in food at that time.
No one in my family then knew what is fiddlehead and I didn't see them in the roadside markets either, where you usually expect to find local produce except as pickles.
That's because fiddlehead is not usually cultivated as produce although it's commercially harvested in spring in many places. It grows on its own in wild wet corners of the world, from Himalayas to Assam in India and across North America and parts of Europe. An age old fern, fiddlehead is part of the traditional diets across Asia and Native Americans for centuries.
Until I moved to Canada, I never knew how significant fiddlehead is to Canadian spring. Emerging from the leaf litters in the forests, fiddleheads announce the arrival of spring in many parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Canadian East coast as well as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan in western and central Canada. Writer, naturalist, historian and lecturer, George Ellison who conducts plant identification workshops says:
"When leading field trips, my first response to fiddlehead queries is the obvious one. I point out that fiddleheads aren’t a species of fern but a growth form.
Most fern species — to a greater or lesser degree — display the characteristic fiddlehead shape when they arise from the plant’s underground rhizomes. The “fern leaf” differs from the “true leaf” of the flowering plants in its vernation, or manner of expanding from the bud. In the ferns, vernation is circinate; that is, the leaf unrolls from the tip, with the appearance of a fiddlehead, rather than expanding from a folded condition.
This unfurling strategy helps the immature frond make its way upward through the soil and leaf litter. It also protects the developing leaflets (pinna) that will comprise the leafy portion of the mature frond. The first fronds to appear in a new season’s growth are purely vegetative; fronds unfurling later bear the spore capsules (sporangia)."
The North American Ostrich fern species bearing fiddleheads is reputed to be utterly delicious and safe to eat, and many go foraging for these twirling-at-their-tip beauties in the wild. I get my stock from the fruit stand here in Whitehorse. The lady there is always generous and kind as she empties little baskets of clumping leaflets into my shopping bag.
While locals in Uttarakhand eat this commonly, as my Kumaoni side of the family and food photographer and recipe creator, Sanskriti Bist from Garhwal confirm, I had never got an opportunity to cook it while I lived in India. The timing of my visit has to be precise as this fern has a short season. My friend P who always brings out the best in Kumaoni food shared how her mother makes it. She strings the mature greens and uses the younger ones as they are, and sautés with some salt and coriander. Some locals also make it with ginger, garlic and tomatoes. Sanskriti's Phupu Nani makes an onion tomato masala and tops it with boiled lingdu.
It isn't cooked a lot in urban homes though. My mother-in-law, P, and Sanskriti agree it's enjoyed as a stir-fry or gravy in the remote villages in Uttarakhand or by people who know how to forage it and appreciate its grassy-nutty flavour. The narrative is similar in Himachal Pradesh where the migratory tribe, Gaddis, forage fiddleheads amidst other edible plants while moving their livestock across plains in the winter and hills in the summer.
In the far north east of India, it's more common in homes I feel, where it's foraged and celebrated as an edible green. Lessons in Slow Eating from a Naga Kitchen on the Goya Journal has a lovely recipe of fish cooked with fiddlehead ferns. It's also foraged down south amidst hills in Coorg and made into delicious palya.
Chef Shawn Adler says, "And while these furled fronds may be gone in a flash, they’re very versatile, so you can enjoy them in a multitude of ways during their short season", and I couldn't agree more. In a CBC episode of Forage, he explains how to identify wild fiddleheads, the stage of growth when they're edible and how to sustainably harvest them. He makes a beer-battered tempura which I absolutely love apart from the Indian styled pickle and this stir fry that I make with a bare minimum pantry staples.
I will write about the fiddlehead pickle or kasrod ka achar in the next post. Until then, if you have access to edible fiddleheads this season, don't miss out the opportunity to make this simple and delicious recipe.
Ferns show up in fossil records before flowering plants, and that's a hint to how old fiddleheads are. Surviving through ages and thriving in the enclosures of hills and mountains, fiddleheads unroll from their tips — following a journey from top to bottom, symbolic of our own odyssey of understanding our being. The closer I have moved to mountains, the more I have realized how small we are in the vast layout of the universe, how survival is sometimes a challenge at altitudes and how simple the solutions of food can be in that context, how little we know of our own food systems and cultures, and how much remains to remembered, explored, written and preserved.
You will never go wrong with fiddleheads no matter what you do! Their sweet like asparagus, grassy nutty like green bean and fibrous texture like broccoli stem makes them great ingredients for different kinds of dishes like stir fries, gravies, salads and fritters!
Fiddleheads are extremely versatile, and while they're tasty on their own, they also add a ton of texture and flavour when cooked with mushrooms, fish and/or bamboo shoots as stir fries or gravies.
1-2 cups fiddleheads, washed, stringed and roughly chopped (String the hardy mature ones, younger ones can chopped as is. Also discard any brown papery leaf parts on top)
2 tsp oil (if you like mustard, use that or any healthy cold pressed oil of your choice is fine)
1/4 tsp cumin and mustard seeds
3-4 cloves of garlic, pounded
1/2 inch ginger, pounded or finely chopped
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Boil the chopped fiddleheads for 5-6 minutes ensuring they're tender and hold shape. Strain and keep aside.
In a pan, heat oil. If using mustard oil, let it smoke up. Reduce the heat, and add cumin and mustard. Once they splutter, add ginger and garlic and sauté, till they lose their raw smell.
Add the boiled fiddleheads and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Then add chili, turmeric and coriander powders and give a good mix. Add salt and sauté for another minute. Reduce heat, cover and let the greens cook in the steam for about 2-3 minutes.
Switch off the heat, mix and then serve with rice and dal/beans gravy or ghee smeared rotis!