More than 500 fern species grow in Malaysia, and we ate one or two of them a day in Borneo. (More than 11,000 fern varieties inhabit the earth, and more than 200 are eaten in the tropics. Ferns have been around more than 300 million years!)
Edible ferns (red and green), collected from the forest, are a staple in the Borneo diet. Most often, they’re fried simply with garlic and a little chili, and they taste of a typical Southeast Asian stir-fried spinach or Chinese broccoli dish. I love the way they curl on a plate, the furled leaflets coiled into a nutritious little mass! One of the most tantalizing varieties had been fried with belacan, not too much oil, over a hot flame that gave it a chargrilled flavor. Yum!
But the very best ferns (aside from my husband, of course) were those we ate deep in the Kelabit Highlands in a small village accessible only by trail. Our friendly hosts served ferns for lunch and dinner; there was nothing unusual in their preparation. But we savored them in a house surrounded by jungle. We ate beneth a sweet-smellling sky. And we had seen these ferns along the trail on our hike to the village (pictured above). Everything on that dining table had grown in the forest or been lugged to the village by foot. I believe there is no better way to eat a fern.
For all the biology buffs out there, the Kew Gardens and the American Fern Society provide heaps of information on these fascinating plants. Click here to read another blogger’s encounter with a savory Malaysian fern recipe, and here to read about the trend toward “gourmet” indigenous vegetables in Sarawak.
Ferns for sale at the Sunday market in Miri
Ferns on a plate