炒山蘇 – Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry
Taiwan has more than 20 distinct tribal groups, more than half of which are still awaiting to be acknowledged. Many of them have uniquely spoken languages, cultural and religious practices and of course, cuisine. But one dish which seems to perpetuate quite a number of aboriginal groups is 炒山蘇 Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry. I vividly remember having it for the first time around 10 years back during our initial trips to Taiwan. It was a cold evening in February. The rain most certainly didn’t help. Not a good time to visit night markets, so our Taiwanese friend drove us up to Yang Ming Shan 阳明山 in the outskirts of Taipei. We stopped by at what seemed to be just a small and shabby-looking eatery forged out of makeshift material and planks. I could still hear the pitter-patter in my head as the raindrops fell on the galvanised zinc rooftop. We had several interesting dishes for dinner that day, what the locals would call a 野菜宴. The highlight for the day was a chicken soup cooked with various Chinese herbs, wild vegetables and of course a free-range chicken. The soup which was served in a blackened terracotta pot was still in a rolling boil, perfect for the weather. Then there was a wild boar meat stir fry with very simple ingredients. It was immensely peppery and gingery at the same time, presumably to musk any gamey flavours from the animal, which the boss-cum-chef purportedly claimed to have just been caught by a trap the night before. But what interest me the most, was in fact a dish of curled up leaves, glistening in oil and sauce against the florescent lamps. That was the first time I had bird’s nest fern stir fry. A memorable experience, a dish I would definitely order whenever it is available on the menu, and one which I am very keen to replicate at home for myself. I’m glad I did.
炒山蘇 is traditionally prescribed as a “tribal dish” from the cuisines of the Taiwanese aboriginal people. However, around 20 years ago in the 1990s, it started to gain popularity amongst the other locals as well. The bird’s nest fern used then were harvested largely from the wild and thus quantity was quite limited. This drove prices of the dish up, during the days when it was still deemed as a “rare delicacy”. Prices back then for raw bird’s nest fern fronds was a whooping NT400 per 台斤 “kati” (appro. 600g per kati) Some entrepreneurial Taiwanese saw the business opportunity and began cultivating bird’s nest fern in larger scale. Soon, it became more affordable and gradually, the dish found its way onto the dining tables of restaurants in the cities as well. We had it on several occasions when we dined at various joints in Taiwan, from the “小吃部” style diners which is very common in southern Taiwan, to the local family-run restaurants in Taipei.
This is what we saw being offered at 乌来, a hot-spring resort in Taipei county, easily accessible with just a short 40 min drive south of the country’s capital. It is also the homeland of the Atayal tribe, and thus, it comes as no surprise that “tribal tourism” is being touted here. At NT 150 a plate is considered “expensive” actually by “current standards”, as the dish is also available at those “99热炒” eateries, where most dishes go for NT99 a plate.
The most economical way of enjoying this dish is to cook it yourself! Only the young fronds are used，usually still “budding” out of the core of a matured plant, where the curled up leaves are still soft and tender. It is now commonly available in the wet markets in Taiwan now compared to a couple of years ago, an attempt by the cultivators to introduce it as a vegetable into the daily meals of the Taiwanese people. Prices are still slightly higher than the other vegetables, say kangkong or cabbage. But at NT25 for a bunch and NT40 for 2, it has really become so much more affordable than 10 years ago when we just had it!
The trick is really to go for a quick stir-fry, which helps to maintain the crunch of the fronds, exactly what one should be after when enjoying this dish. So it is important to have all the ingredients prepared beforehand. With the mise en place done, the dish could be whipped up in a matter of minutes!
炒山蘇 – Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry Recipe
1 bundle of bird’s nest fern young fronds 山苏嫩芽 (appro. 150 – 200g), young and tender fern tips used only
2 tbsp of dried anchovies aka ikan bilis 小鱼干
1/2 tbsp salted black beans 豆豉, slightly crushed
1 red chili, seeded and sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, crushed amd minced
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
dash of white pepper
2-3 tbsp water
1 tbsp cooking oil
Dash of glutinous rice cooking wine （optional)
1 tbsp roasted peanuts (optional)
Rinse the dried anchovies quickly over running water and pat dry with kitchen towel. With some cooking oil, pan fry the dried anchovies until crisp. For a healthier version, the anchovies can also be laid out over a baking sheet and baked in the oven until crisp.
Rinse the bird’s nest fern young fronds thoroughly with water and cut into bite size pieces. Discard the lower ends which are too tough and fibrous, as well as the hard central vein which runs longitudinally along the leaf.
Heat up a wok with cooking oil over medium high heat.
Add salted black beans and stir fry until fragrant, followed by garlic and stir fry until fragrant as well.
Add bird’s nest fern fronds and sliced chili and stir fry for 30-45 seconds or so, until the fronds begin to soften slightly.
Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Add 2-3 tbsp of water if the mixture is too dry.
Add crispy anchovies and stir fry for another 30 seconds or so.
Finally, drizzle glutinous rice cooking wine around the perimeter of the wok （do not add the wine directly over the vegetable).
Turn off flame, add roasted peanuts and give everything a quick toss.
Plate and serve immediately with rice and other dishes.