Japan: eating bracken

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When I see bracken in the garden or woods around me, I don’t instantly think, “Oooh tasty!” But after a wee trip to Japan, I decided to find out more about this pretty groovy plant. It’s eaten a lot in Korea and Japan.

The main ingredient of a Japanese dessert called warabi mochi is bracken starch or warabi-ko. And that was tasty. It’s served with a black sauce called kuro mitsu (black sugar), and has soya flour sprinkled over it. Most of the sweetness comes from the sauce, but the warabi-ko and soya flour combine to give quite an earthy taste.  The bracken flour cubes have the texture of very sticky chewy marshmallows.

Warabi mochi bracken flour

Warabi Mochi. Bracken flour dessert.

This was dessert is a little cafe in Kamakura, (the home of the famous Buddha) which specialises in noodles. So we had noodles for main course. My friend, Sayuki, who lives in Kamakura and knows the nice places to eat, had soba (noodles made from buckwheat) and I had udon (thick wheat flour noodles). If you get to Kamakura one day, the restaurant was called Dankazura Kosuzu.

Udon wheat flour noodles.

Udon wheat flour noodles.

But back to bracken. There are claims and counterclaim galore about it being a poison on the one hand and a delicious asparagus-like forage food on the other. It can poison little animals like mice right up to big animals like horses. As a weed it’s very clever because it initiates chemical warfare on its neighbours. The biological term is allelopathy – producing biochemicals to attack the plants around you to gain a competitive growing advantage. The reason why bracken is so prolific.

Those little dots under the bracken leaves that look like insect eggs are in fact spores. The part which is much sought after by foragers is the unfurled leaf tip, fiddleheads as they are sometimes called. Fried in butter.

But the claim that bracken contains a carcinogen is correct. It’s called ptalquilocide. The quantity which requires to be eaten, and how the cooking process affects the carcinogenic properties is a little unclear. The best, most informative site I found was http://honest-food.net/2011/06/24/bracken-fern-food-or-poison/

I’d prefer some bracken to a glass of Coke any day.

By Jen

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