While on the subject of “bizarre food” it wouldn’t be fair to highlight only the Nepali side. Springtime in New England means that it is fiddlehead season. I had never heard of a fiddlehead until I visited a friend in Portland Maine where fiddleheads are serious business, and now that I live in New England I can occasionally find fiddleheads in the grocery store when the time is right.
Fiddleheads are the young shoots of ferns that peek out of the ground once the weather starts to warm and are supposedly the first “green vegetable” of the year. The fern heads are tightly coiled and get their name because they look a bit like the coiled head piece of a fiddle. Once the fiddleheads uncoil then they are no longer edible (actually… toxic!), thus the season is very short.
In an age where one can find any vegetable at any time of the year—Mexican tomatoes in January, Chilean peaches in March—the fact that fiddleheads are only around for a few weeks at a specific time in a specific region and are gathered by foragers in the forest makes them sound very mystical and unique.
I loved this description from a website:
When we had our cottage at Sebago Lake, [the fiddleheads] would arrive at local stores in burlap bags carried by some memorable local characters. If someone, always “from away”, were to ask where he found them, the usual response was a silent stare. If the forager responded at all, it would usually be: “in the woods”. Natives know these locations are carefully guarded secrets and never bother to ask the question.
In fact the first fiddleheads I had ever eaten were gathered by my friend’s significant other while he was out in the forest at a secret fiddlehead cache, and he indeed had a burlap bag full of them. We had taken P’s parents to Maine for the weekend, and the whole family sat on the porch outside rubbing the brown papery chaff off the outer layer of the fiddlehead coil. My friend was very eager to share this very “New England” specialty with P’s foreign parents, but little did she know that the coiled worm looking baby ferns which are proudly New England regional cuisine… was also a Nepali food!
I didn’t realize this coincidence until I bought my now favorite Nepali cookbook and found two recipe entries in the index for fiddleheads. Nepalis call them neuro and make a curry (neuro ko tarkari) and use them in a type of salad (saandheko neuro). By the time I made this discovery last year fiddlehead season had passed, so I was anxious for it to come this year.
I found them two weeks ago and bought a bagful. P wasn’t as excited, but hey, remember, I wanted to be more adventurous with veg food and here was my opprotunity. I offered to try the curry recipe, but he said that curry would probably overpower their original flavor, so I decided to make them “New England” style…
They taste a little earthy, and a little like asparagus, but I enjoy them. A tasty different seasonal treat that both ties me to my new home (a traditional “New England” dish) and P’s home (a surprise Nepali food).
On a side note– When Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods made a show in Maine, fiddleheads were on the menu!