Fiddle-head ferns (ningro)

Fiddle-minded to taste the food of Sikkim

Author: G Vijay Iyer
Date: 2020-11-04

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There are many herbs and vegetables that are unique to the alpine region of the Himalayas, many that are an acquired taste and many that are surprisingly refreshing to the palate. Among the many natural delicacies of this region that I have come to enjoy in Sikkim, Ningro or alpine fiddlehead ferns is probably one of my favourites. 

These are edible ferns that grow commonly all through the dew-wet forests as undergrowth. The fern gets its rather peculiar name from the shape of its coiled sprouts/fronds that resemble the spiral end of a fiddle. They usually sprout during late summers and remain till the rains (May-Sep). Later, they mature into green plumes, which are inedible. There are many varieties of these ferns: some are used as a vegetable and prized like the Vegetable Fern, Lady Fern, and Ostrich Fern, while there are many more which are simply poisonous.

Ningro is not a cultivated crop but rather ferns that grow wild in dense damp forests. Foraging of this vegetable is done mostly by rural women folk who are experienced in identifying edible varieties from the poisonous ones. It is not an easy task—leeches, summer burns, and monsoon rains make it hard to collect. When harvesting, the fronds are cut almost at their base, leaving almost a foot-long curled sprout that is collected and tied into small bundles with the help of green straw. It is this form that you will see sold by the bundle in the local markets.  

Fiddle-head ferns found at a local market in Gangtok, Sikkim

Fiddleheads have a fragile shelf-life, spoiling rapidly once plucked and should be consumed within a day or two of plucking. It is advised not to eat it raw as it contains some toxins. However, on boiling/ steaming, the same is easily neutralized, leaving behind only a host of nutrients.

Fiddleheads have been part of traditional diets in much of the eastern Himalayas for centuries. In the state of Tripura, it is known as muikhonchok; in Assam, it is known as dhekia sak; and in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Bhutan, and Nepal, it is known as ningro. These ferns are usually cleaned, boiled/steamed, and stir-fried with aromatics and served as an accompaniment to rice. They are also pickled in many places. A popular dish enjoyed in Sikkim and adjoining regions is ningro-churpi, which is a stir fry of steamed/boiled fiddlehead ferns in clarified butter and cooked with onions, chillies, garlic, and local crumbly cheese churpi, which gives the dish a tangy taste. The taste of the ferns itself is best described as slightly nutty asparagus-/okra-like flavor with overtones of green beans and artichoke. Besides being yummy, these are super-foods rich in vitamins A, B2, B3, C, manganese, copper, potassium, protein, iron, and zinc. They are also rich in antioxidants and have many medicinal uses in traditional medicine.

In my opinion, it is one of the most palatable finds through the unique Himalayan cuisine and may leave you wanting more. So do try it on your next trip to Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, or Darjeeling and do share your experience.

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