I have always been intrigued with tales of royalty or paranoid leaders throughout history who employed “tasters” to ensure that their food wasn’t poisoned. Then after a few minutes, if the taster didn’t fall to the floor, clutching his/her stomach or throat, writhing in pain, the royal feast could continue. I suppose it would be inhumane or is it “uncanine-like” to employ our chocolate labrador as my personal taster. I figure she just sits around all day, waiting for skwutches (tummy and body rubs and tickles). I bet you didn’t you know that some dogs have an uneven number of nipples and not all dogs have the same number? That is your canine trivia of the day. While our lab is incredibly lovable and cute, she really hasn’t figured how to earn her keep, and believe me, her food and medical bills are somewhat outrageous… So somehow this brings me to the topic of pako, or young ferns. They aren’t purely fiddlehead ferns as a great volume of a typical pinoy pako salad are actually already unfurled fern shoots, not just the tight “fiddlehead” looking tips. I LOVE PAKO. And was glad to see them on Claude Tayag’s menu for Anthony Bourdain. I was also thrilled to see them in a recently published Filipino cookbook. But I was personally surprised that quite a few folks eat them RAW, as opposed to blanched.
There are several previous posts on pako here, here and here. And on one of them, a recent comment suggested eating them totally fresh, as one might do with salad lettuce. I wrote this response to that comment, and am re-quoting it here, as I am a bit wary (possibly unnecessarily so) of mild toxins in several types of ferns… at least to be on the safe side, folks who prepare pako should be aware of more than the usual risks associated with vegetables in general. I may be wrong on this, but if I recall correctly paku or ferns in Indonesia or Malaysia, from where our term pako is derived from, was almost always cooked rather than served fresh. My answer to the recent comment was this:
“…some ferns have a mild poisonous compound, and elsewhere in the world, blanching is often recommended. For fiddlehead ferns (there are many varieties across the globe, our closest relations being the ones in Indonesia, probably), the substance to watch out for is shikimic acid, which is a mild poison. Some fairly reliable sources (Mansfield Encyclopedia) write that shikimic acid can be a cause of stomach cancer, and site varieties of ferns specifically from East Asia, including Pterdium aquilinum. Although they list the more common edible ferns in the Philippines as Athyrium esculentum. And if you go to this site, you will see they list that latter Filipino variety under poisonous plants. I wonder if the poison, albeit a different one, is similar to calcium oxalate found in uncooked gabi or taro leaves… which if eaten uncooked, can cause severe throat constriction in some people. So I would be concerned about suggesting that the ferns be eaten raw without further study (or information)… I do love them cooked, however.”
My favorite way to enjoy pako is in a simple salad. I boil up some water in a large pot. I ready a large bowl with water and lots of ice, or an ice bath. I plunge the pako (I figure on 2-3 bunches per person worth of tips) into the boiling water and swich it around for just 15 or 20 seconds, then I take the pako out and shock it in the ice bath to stop the cooking, and retain the beautiful green color. Then I drain it well and chill it, or put it in a salad spinner if you want to remove the excess liquid. I dress this with a pinoy vinaigrette of some vinegar, salt, a touch of sugar and some pepper. I like the touch of sugar as I find it enhances the asparagus or earthy flavors of the greens. You can add chopped tomatoes for some color. Or some pugo eggs as Claude did for a bit of protein and color and texture. Serve cold. Delicious, but SUPER delicious. I am not a botanist or a toxicologist so i don’t know what the definitive answer to the fresh or raw vs. blanched question… but as long as you are aware of the risks, I suppose you can eat it any way you like.