It’s pronounced pakô — the stress is on the last syllable with a glottal stop at the end, which is different from pakò, which means nail, where the stress on the penultimate syllable but also with a glottal stop at the end. Actually, pakô is the generic Tagalog term for FERN… any fern, not just this, the fiddlehead fern. And yet, when you ask for pakô from a farmer or market vendor, he or she knows that you are referring exactly to this tasty leafy plant, and not the garden-variety ferns that grow in gardens or are used in floral arrangements. It grows along the banks of cool, flowing rivers and the sides of mountain streams, especially during the rainy season. In the United States, where they are called fiddlehead ferns, they are usually a springtime favorite, available only for a few weeks in the year.
My passion for pakô was born many many years ago when my friends and I had lunch at the pottery place of Ugu Bigyan in Tiaong, Quezon. The idea of eating a fern simply intrigued me, much less using it as the main ingredient in a salad. But one bite of this refreshingly crisp, crunchy, earthy-tasting plant… and I was hooked! It has that nutty, slightly bitter taste similar to asparagus that I really like. Way back then, it was rare to find this fabulous fern in urban markets. One had to travel out of town and be at the markets at the crack of dawn — such as in the palengkes near Arayat, Pampanga or in Quezon or the mountainous municipalities of Rizal and Laguna — to get your hands on freshly harvested fiddlehead ferns. I remember a time my brothers and I drove to the town of Real in Quezon (a two-and-a-half hour drive up the mountains and down to the eastern seaboard) to check out the markets. And I found bunches of pakô being sold in one stall. I scooped them all up, much to the delight of the market vendor, and I paid only P100 for it all. Until the weekend farmers’ markets began sprouting in communities around the metro in the recent years, I get to enjoy pakô so rarely. These days, the Saturday Market in Ayala Alabang sells the ferns fairly regularly. And, until recently, we were one of the few market-goers who’d snatch them up. It has become a staple in our weekend family meals. However, now, we got competition — people seem to have discovered the joy of eating pakô! Thankfully, our sukì always reserves a few bunches for us.
How does one enjoy pakô? The simplest and easiest way is as a salad.
First things first — trim the ferns. Sort of the way one trims asparagus. Snap off the heads till the tenderest part of stem and just pick out the rest of the fronds, making sure to remove the brown or wilted leaves. Then wash them thoroughly with running water.
Blanch in rapidly boiling salted water for 30 seconds to a minute at the most to remove any dirt and debris as well as to avoid possible stomach upset from eating the raw ferns. Shock them in ice-cold water, then drain well. This is to keep their vibrant green color and their crunchy texture.
Toss the ferns together with sliced tomatoes, red onions or shallots, and salted eggs. (Sculptor/chef Claude Tayag prefers to use quail eggs, I hear, but I prefer the contrapunto flavor that salted eggs give.)
For the dressing : Balsamic vinegar or sukang sasa (a mild but flavorful vinegar found in Ilocos made from fermented nipa sap and sugar cane extract), extra virgin olive oil, a spoonful of mascovado sugar, and ground black pepper. No need to add salt as salted eggs are … duh… already salty. Pour the dressing over the salad just before serving, so that the leaves don’t darken or go limp and the vinegar does not cook the ferns. My friend, JJ Yulo of the “Pinoy Eats World” group, mashes the yolk of the salted egg with the balsamic vinegar first and mixes them up well before combining the rest of the dressing ingredients to give it a sharper, umami-er tang.
There are many ways to enjoy the simple and unpretentious pakô. In Bicol and other southern Tagalog provinces, it is cooked in gatâ or coconut milk, spiced up with siling labuyò of course. At the Samaral Seafood Restaurant in Bae, Laguna, they serve a mean dish of Guinataang Kuhol with Pakô (local escargot or snails with pakô stewed in a very spicy coconut sauce). If you prefer a more Western style of eating the fern, try this: simply sauté quickly in olive oil with chopped garlic and fresh basil. Sprinkle with chili pepper flakes for a bit of a kick, if you prefer.