Nandini Sen’s

A feral vegetable that looks as unique as it tastes, fiddlehead ferns – kasrod in Jammu – are adored across cultures and regions that are familiar with it. Anywhere else, they remain an enigma.

To the unacquainted eye, the fiddlehead fern with its tightly coiled fern fronds is bound to elicit some curiosity. Named after the scroll at the end of a violin or fiddle, the fiddlehead has a distinctly curled up appearance that at once sets it apart from the ‘commoner’ vegetables that unobtrusively sit around on vegetable store racks. Not widely found or seen, this startlingly green wild, vernal vegetable remains shrouded in anonymity, scarcely known outside the hilly pockets of North and North-Eastern India. In Jammu & Kashmir, it is known and eaten throughout the districts of Jammu while being virtually unrecognized in the Valley of Kashmir. Say hello to the fiddlehead fern if you haven’t met on the dining table before.

A Child of the Hills

The fiddlehead fern grows across hilly swathes of North and Northeastern India including Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tripura, Sikkim, and Assam. Known by different names – kasrod in Jammu, lingad or lingri in Himachal Pradesh, languda in Uttarakhand, niuro in Sikkim, and dhekia xak in Assam – the vegetable is pickled as well as cooked fresh and occupies an important place in the local cuisine of these Himalayan states.

The best and freshest fiddlehead ferns are briefly available from early May to early July. They can usually be found growing together in clusters of hundreds – if not thousands – in cool, swampy, shaded areas, not far from natural streams and brooks. Although fiddleheads can grow up to more than two feet in height, they are best picked at about four to six inches tall while the fiddlehead is still tightly curled and yet to unfurl. Newly emerging fiddleheads are conspicuous by their bright emerald colour, as well as feathery brown paper-like covering over the coils.

Above: Bright green, tender fiddlehead ferns are exceptionally flavourful and nutritious.      Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Fiddleheads are grassy and slightly sweet, with an undertaste of nuttiness. While its crunch can be likened to that of broccoli stem or green beans, its taste can at best be described as a cross between asparagus and mushroom. But fiddlehead ferns are more than tasty. They are packed with a host of nutrients including iron, potassium, Vitamin C, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Since they are rich in dietary fibre and low in calories, regular consumption can help reduce cholesterol, fight heart disease, control blood sugar, and maintain bowel health.

The Green Jewel in the Crown of Jammu’s Cuisine

The fact that fiddleheads are known by different names across the Jammu region testifies their widespread availability and popularity. So, while it is kasrod for Dogras, it is kandor for Poonchis, and ted for Kishtwaris.

Fiddleheads grow plentifully in the upper reaches of the mountains of Jammu. They are particularly abundant in the sylvan terrains of cooler districts such as Udhampur where you might find them covering acres of ground, growing close to gurgling streams or under the canopy of trees like Deodar.

Although the vegetable is yet to be bestowed the iconic status enjoyed by other, more popular gastronomic delights of the region such as Rajma and Kalari cheese, fiddleheads occupy a special place on Dogra tables.

Above: Freshly plucked fiddleheads from the hills of Udhampur, Jammu.                         Photo Courtesy of Tilak Prabhu Dayal Sharma.

Since fresh fiddleheads are overwhelmingly flavourful, they are typically stir-fried with minimal condiments. However, they are also cooked with the addition of onions and tomatoes. More famously, they are preserved as a pickle, relished all through the year as a side dish alongside every meal. Rooted very much in the culinary mores of the region, fiddlehead ferns often evoke nostalgia for those who grew up eating the vegetable.

“I can’t say there is anything in the world like the fragrance of kasrod for me” says Tilak Prabhu Dayal Sharma, a native of Udhampur and senior research scholar at the University of Jammu. “It is instantly reminiscent of a cluster of childhood memories! Even today, it is hard to imagine what early summer meals without a serving of kasrod would be like!” he adds with a chuckle.

Fiddlehead ferns aren’t exorbitant. During peak season, they are sold at anything ranging from INR 30-60 per kilo. However, closer to where they are sourced, fiddleheads are freshly plucked and sold by village vendors for prices as low as INR 20 per kilo.

The World Table

Despite its humble stature as a “local” feral vegetable in the northern part of the subcontinent, fiddleheads are a rather prized delicacy on the world table. Valued for their novel flavour and texture, the part-earthy, part-exotic vegetable is enjoyed across cultures and regions in unimaginably different ways. In Indonesia, Gulai Pakis is a dish consisting of tender fiddlehead ferns in a creamy, spiced coconut milk-based curry. The famed Korean side dish Gosari namul is made using bracken fiddleheads.

Fiddleheads have had a place in In Northern French cooking at least since the Middle Ages. In a classic minimalist recipe, they are delicately tossed in just olive oil, finely minced garlic, and lemon juice so as to avoid overwhelming their natural taste.

A wildly popular (pun intended!) dish in parts of Canada, fiddlehead ferns are found in nearly all provinces, but most abundantly in New Brunswick, southern Québec and southern Ontario. The village Tide Head in New Brunswick is in fact known as the “fiddlehead capital of the world”.

Owing to its singular versatility, this sprightly green vegetable lends itself beautifully to a range of everyday western foods such as stews, soups, omelettes, mousses, pastas, and stir fries. They even work beautifully as a side dish – sautéed, steamed, fried, or baked – to accompanying meats and fish. They are also frozen and preserved for future use. But no matter how they are cooked, fiddleheads must be washed several times in cold water to remove the dirt and papery scales.

Data from the 2019-20 National Family Health Survey reveals that more than 90% of the population in over half the 30 states/ UTs of India consume fish or chicken or mutton on a daily or weekly basis. In this meat-loving country, vegetables – even the most exotic of them – are often derisively dismissed as “ghaas poos”. They are, at any rate, regarded as part of an inferior fare, no match for the rich, unctuous meats that most perennially love and long for. Nonetheless, the beloved kasrod or kandor or ted will always have a cherished place on the tables and in the minds of those who’ve been lucky enough to taste and relish it!

Written by Nandini Sen
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