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Taiwan's Birds Nest

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 15 - 16

A friend piqued my interest telling me she and her husband recently went back to Taiwan for a vacation; there, they had a wonderful countryside lunch. The picture she showed and later discussed was one I could not initially identify, not the greens nor the seeds. After a restless night, I did recall the seeds, but not the greens, and I could not name them.

The next day I did realize the seeds were something I had written about in this magazine. She called them 'marinated berries, brown in color, with a pit inside.' Perusing the index listings and article titles, I saw and did recognize them as 'tree seeds.' The greens I had never seen.

She then showed me her husband's photograph of the meal. The seeds were discussed in the 2000 issue of Volume 7(4), on pages 13 and 14, but I had forgotten about them. They are Cordia dichotoma or tree seeds. Previously I did share information about them with readers, and shared a dreadful picture of them in that issue. On this page is a better photograph I made after purchasing some this week. Before writing the earlier article, I did eat them pickled, as are the ones pictured on this page.

When growing, the seeds are pinkish to orange and from a small flowering tree now touted as in the Boraginaceae family. They are native to China, India, and Pakistan, probably other countries with similar climates. I now want to learn more about the greens.

The seeds are sometimes called clammy cherry, glue berry, bird-lime tree, soap berry, and other names. On the Indian sub-continent, they are known as thanapet or lasora. In Taiwan they call them phopozi or weipao.

Used unripe for pickling, these fruits are rarely sold in markets, perhaps because they travel poorly. Consider yourself lucky when finding them pickled and in jars in the United States. These were found in New York City in the Flushing area. We have also seen them on the west coast in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, almost always jarred, pickled, and made with lots of ginger.

Chinese tree seeds have medicinal uses, one TCM practitioner from Taipei told me. He went on to say he uses them when treating colitis. The greens he called 'royal ferns' and did not know, as we do not, know where to get them. My friend told me that in Chinese, they are called shansu, or pakpak lauin. She is from Taiwan, and says there, they are also known as 'bird's nest fern.' She added she has had these seeds made with dried fish and their leaves there, and said to look closely at the meal her husband photographed. He said we could print it for our readers to see, and did.

We learn the greens are from a huge herbaceous plant growing at low or moderate altitudes, and they grow from the center of their 'crown.' We now know they have lots of leaves, most are pointed, each with a thick center vein. Literature about them tells us they are gummy when cooked, some call them slimy, and the plant resembles a bird's nest, hence its name.

The TCM doctor mentioned, says they can be eaten stir-fried alone as a vegetable or with meat or fish. He said to tell our readers that medicinally they have a purifying effect, can be used as a sedative, and are used to get rid of bad breath. He also told us that one of his colleagues told him they are valuable if someone is stung by a bee or a hornet, can be used to get rid of lice, and to reduce asthma or ulcers. His colleague also uses them as a contraceptive, but he never has. He went on to say the leaves can be dried and ground and made into a flour, and as such they make a crisp coating before frying foods coated with them.

The friend who showed me the pictures also sent me a recipe for them. She does not know if this fern, in Chinese called shansu, or any other fern is available in Flushing where I shop for Chinese vegetables, nor does she recall seeing them where she shops. She went on to tell us that this dish can be made with any thick leafy green.

We thank her and her husband for educating us, sharing his pictures, and for sharing her recipe. When we did look up information about these foods, there was a recipe for pork with the greens in an old book, so we share that as well. Also, this friend told us that her friend is from Guizhou and she uses two other ferns, Pteridium aquilinum and Cyathea spinulosa. We need to learn about them, too. (br>
Taiwan's Birds Nest Fern with Tree Seeds
1 pound shansu, washed, trimmed, stems cut away, and cut into one- to two-inch pieces
10 small pieces dried boneless fish, soaked in warm water for fifteen minutes
10 to 20 tree seeds with two tablespoons of their picking juice, pitted if desired
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 to 3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1 scallion, slivered or 1 small hot pepper, seeded and slivered
salt and pepper, to taste
a few drops of sesame oil
1. Blanch the vegetable in boiling water for one minute, then rinse and drain with cold water.
2. Drain soaked dried fish.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, then add the vegetable oil. Stir-fry the garlic, scallion, ginger, and dried fish for about three minutes.
4. Then, add the rest of the ingredients, stir once or twice, and then serve immediately.
Royal Fern with Pork
1 pound raw bacon
1/2 pound royal fern or any other fern, if dried, then soaked for ten minutes in hot water, then drained and slivered
1 Tablespoon lard
2 large shallots, peeled and minced
3 sliced fresh ginger, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground five-spice powder
1. Slice the fresh bacon into one-quarter inch pieces, and put it on the lard, with the meat on it, all on a heat-proof deep plate.
2. Spread the greens over the meat, and then sprinkle the shallots, ginger, cinnamon, and the five-spice powder over all of it.
3. Put this in a steamer, and cover the steamer for half an hour over boiling water. Then uncover, and serve, thickening the liquid, if desired with a cornstarch-water mixture.

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