A weedy delicacy
What is commonly called the fiddlehead fern is known in Hawai’i as ho’i'o, and on Maui, as pohole. This ancient plant is foraged for food the world over, from both coasts of North America, to the Philippines (where it is called pako and is usually eaten with the fermented fish sauce patis, bitter melon leaves and tomatoes), to Japan (called warabi and often an ingredient in the mixed mountain vegetable dish sansai). In the Hawaiian islands, ho’i'o was traditionally eaten with ‘opae (shrimp) and eventually with salted salmon after the fish was brought over by the Europeans. But despite its widespread use, the attractive, green ho’i'o remains relatively unknown to most people.
The curled, spiral fern grows from the grounds of damp forests, often adjacent to running water. Its shoots eventually unfurl into fronds that are only edible during a two-week phase in the plant’s life cycle. When picked with the stalk, it measures about 10 inches long and is about the thickness of a knitting needle. The delicate tip resembles the scroll of a violin–hence the name ‘fiddlehead.’
Ho’i'o is similar to asparagus and okra. When eaten raw or blanched (which helps remove the small hairs on the fern), there is a clean and green flavor that tastes similar to the smell of freshly cut grass. It’s refreshing, and because of ho’i'o’s high water content–it is 98 percent water–there’s a lot of room for it to soak up the flavors and aromas of the ingredients with which it is cooked.
The vibrant green plant is also remarkably high in nutritional value. It has twice as much iron as an equal serving of spinach, and also packs a healthy dose of vitamins B and C and beta-carotene. There are also trace amounts of calcium and protein.
Perhaps it’s the short shelf life of ho’i'o–five days after picking at the most–that this vegetable isn’t a more common item in the home kitchen, even though the fern pickles wonderfully and can be used whenever cornichons and capers are called for.
Ho’i'o are a seasonal item at the farmers’ markets on the Mainland, but in Hawai’i’s tropical climate, it can be foraged all year round. On O’ahu, ho’i'o can be seen frequently along the trails of Tantalus and Manoa Falls. It is, however, much more abundant on the Hilo side of the Big Island and the Hana coast of Maui. Eileen Comeaux, an organic herb grower on Maui, has foraged for pohole (she’s adamant about calling the fern by its proper regional name) for more than 10 years. In the process of introducing both consumers and chefs to the healthy ingredient, she had to personally get FDA approval of the fiddlehead in order for her to legally export it off the island. Building sales and recognition have been difficult, but it is slowly paying off, as chefs both locally and on the Mainland are recognizing the benefits of the more tender and readily available Hawaiian fiddlehead.
On the Comeaux farm website, [www.hanaherbs.com], various chefs share their pohole fern recipes. The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel offers a pohole salad mixed with julienned Maui onions, Kula tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms tossed in a shoyu sesame dressing. The pohole salad at Avalon Restaurant is served with Maui onion, oven-dried tomato and seared aku with a nori vinaigrette.
Comeaux harvests pohole once a week–from which she makes a pohole kimchee that she sells at Maui Community College–near her home in Hana. ‘It’s beautiful…the big waterfalls, lush trails. It’s relatively easy picking it because it grows to just my height. I also get quite wet foraging through all the plants, but it’s OK because I think it’s just all the plants kissing me!
The fiddlehead foraging is a labor of love for Comeaux. Selling and marketing a little known vegetable as a small, independent farmer requires hard work just to break even. ‘This pohole really is from my heart,’ she says. ‘I have always wanted to market an agricultural product that all of Hawai’i could benefit from. We don’t have to change the land, bulldoze, till or do anything. It’s already here and grows naturally. We can prosper from our surroundings, and that is the beauty of local pohole.’