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Warabi / Bracken
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Warabi are the young, long, bright-green or purplish-green buds of a fern that can grow up to 70 centimeters. They have drooping heads of unopened green leaves, which are claw-like in appearance and may be covered in fine hairs. Warabi have a delicate, somewhat bitter taste similar to asparagus and Tuscan black kale, with sweet and nutty notes of green beans and almonds. They have a slippery or slimy texture when cooked, comparable to okra.
Warabi is available in the spring months.
Warabi are botanically classified as Pteridium aquilinum. The name "Warabi" is Japanese for Bracken, which is the common Western term for this species. These terms refer only to the edible, young, unfurled shoots, as the plant is inedible when the leaves are fully open. Warabi must be cooked as it contains a TOXIC carcinogenic compound, ptaquiloside.
Warabi contains high amounts of vitamins A and C and is a good source of iron and fiber. They also contain beta-carotene, and are a rich source of antioxidants omega 3 and omega 6.
Warabi should be washed and MUST BE COOKED before consumption. The carcinogenic compound found in Warabi is water soluble, hence Warabi is most often soaked in water and then blanched with salt and baking soda to help neutralize the toxicity of the compound. Warabi can be used in soups, stews, salads, and sautees. It may be pickled or fried as tempura. Warabi is also commonly found as a topping for udon or soba noodles. Complementary flavors are soy sauce, vinegar, dashi, and mirin. To store Warabi, wrap them in a wet paper towel and place them in a bag in the refrigerator. Warabi is very delicate, and must be used within a day or two.
Warabi has been cited in Japanese literature. It is associated with springtime fires customarily used to clear land of vegetation, after which the plant would thrive in the ashen earth. Ash was traditionally added to the water used to boil Warabi, acting as a neutralizing agent for the toxic compound ptaquiloside. The starchy root of the fern is dried and used much like rice flour and is used to make warabimochi, a jelly-like dessert popular in Japan.
Warabi is one of the most common and widely distributed varieties of all fiddlehead ferns. It grows in drier subtropical climates, and is found on all continents except Antarctica. Warabi is a foraged mountain vegetable that is harvested in the springtime, and it has been used in Japan since medieval times, dating back at least to 734 CE.