The Product: Everlasting Fern Season on Hawaii Provides Year-Round Flavor
$5 to $20 a pound, depending on availability
Five to seven days
Keep them in plastic bags with wet paper towels. Or, if you have them, in Hawaiian ti leaves; the waxy leaves will keep in moisture and keep the fronds from dehydrating.
The ferns boast high levels of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, as well as potassium and fiber, but some East Coast varieties (bracken and ostrich) allegedly lead to cancer and have been linked to food poisoning when undercooked.
Wash thoroughly as you would any wildland vegetable (microbes and insects can hide in the curled fronds). Peel any brown or yellowish skin gently away from the stalks. Cut away about two inches of the stalk—which will likely be dry and inedible—just before cooking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend boiling or steaming East Coast ferns for at least 10 minutes, but many Hawaiian chefs blanch their ferns for 10 to 30 seconds to bring out the bright green color. You can also tempura-fry the fronds like Chef Ken Schloss does at Huggo’s on the Rocks.
For mainlanders, fiddlehead ferns—those earthy, grassy wildling stalks—are a seasonal rarity, enjoyed only during the spring and often after difficult foraging. But in Hawaii, the fiddlehead is the product that time forgot, ignoring seasonality and growing in abundance.
Because of their versatility, few herbs or vegetables define Hawaiian cuisine like fiddlehead ferns, which local legends called “the long-haired fish of the land.” (Hawaiian mythology says the fern’s addictive flavor once trapped a pair of ravenous demonic sisters in stone) Known as pahole on Maui, ho’i’o on the Big Island, warabi by the local Japanese, and pako by Filipinos, the ferns have a rich history in Hawaii but have only caught on among chefs in the last few decades. Now, many chefs on the island consider the presence of fiddleheads on a menu as a measure of how serious a restaurant is about using locally sourced vegetables.
For Chef Sheldon Simeon of Star Noodle in Maui, the ferns are a reminder of luaus at his grandparents house in Hilo. His pahole salad—which also includes sweet Maui onions, fried shrimp, seaweed, and shredded Japanese shrimp—is one of his favorite dishes, and a play on Hawaiian culinary tradition: the simple pairing of the freshwater shrimp with the rainforest ferns.
“What makes ho’i’o special is that it needs clean water to grow. It’s a wetland vegetable,” says Chef Mark Noguchi, who serves his fiddlehead fern salad with fishcake and tomato at He'eia Pier General Store & Deli. Noguchi says the Hawaiian ferns—unlike the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them East Coast varieties, which are a bit dryer and need longer cooking—just need a quick, 30-second blanch and they’re ready to serve.
The ferns don’t have a growing season, but even in Hawaii, foraging for them is a delicate process. Although the fern stalks typically grow to about four feet tall, their six-inch frond tips, as prized as asparagus tips, are edible only during a two-week phase in the plant’s life cycle. That makes harvesting them a microcosmic approach to sustainability; gather them too quickly or in too great a quantity, and you’ll quickly deplete the crop.
One of the leading harvesters of fiddlehead ferns in Hawaii is Eileen Comeaux, who co-owns Hana Herbs with her husband Rene. The two have created a cottage industry for salvaging the ferns from the Maui rainforest by supporting harvesters who remove the stalks from their property. Comeaux, who has received federal certification as a “wildcrafter” (fancy name for a forager), maintains the patches and keeps them free of vines and other invasive species.
Comeaux sells fiddleheads not only to Hawaiian chefs but also several West Coast wholesalers. “When I started, there was a lot of pahole around this property,” Comeaux says of her 10-acre farm. “We started out with nobody knowing about the ferns to selling 200 pounds a week.” She recalls the pushback she received when she first tried to persuade island chefs to use the ferns more frequently on their menus. “At first the chefs here said, ‘the haole [slang for Caucasians] are not going to like it,’ but I said ‘I’m a haole and I like it.’”
Chefs at the Maui Prince Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton began to use the ferns, as did Hawaiian Regional Cuisine founding member Chef Mark Ellman, who is still a huge supporter, Comeaux says. About three-quarters of the foraged ferns are used on the island, but she also now she exports them (packed in local ti leaves, just as the original islanders used to transport them) to the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, restaurants in San Diego, and other buyers on the West Coast. “The beauty of the pahole is that it’s already here,” she says.