Joel Chun unloaded his four children and picnic and set to work scouring the San Bernardino National Forest for young bracken ferns.
Like hundreds of other Korean Americans in Southern California, picking kosari, Korean for the young plants, is a springtime family tradition. The tiny ferns are used in special traditional dishes.
"Every time we have a family party, we cook it," said Mira Loma resident Gina Chun, whose family has come to this forest to pick the ferns for the last eight years. "It's also one of the dishes you can eat at weddings or banquets."
San Bernardino forest officials opened fern-picking season May 21 after they noticed fiddleheads, the young growth stage of ferns, sprouting in numbers by shade trees and in sunny meadows. Last year, about 200 groups stopped at the ranger station in Skyforest to buy permits, at $10 per person, for picking the ferns. The majority of those groups were Korean American.
Forest service officials said this concentration of Asian American visitors is unusual for most national forests. According to a survey of parking passes purchased by visitors from 1997 to 2001, only 4% of visitors to Southern Californian national forests were Asian American, compared with 60% for whites.
A separate survey of bracken fern gatherers in San Bernardino in 1998, however, showed that 79% of the fern gatherers were Korean, 14% were Japanese, and 6% were white.
Korean Americans also crowd Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass in Routt National Forest in Colorado to pick ferns. These are the only managed fern permit programs in the country, according to regional forest service spokesmen.
Forest officials said San Bernardino's permit program, which began in 1981, is the most popular in the country because it is so close to Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean American population in the country. Each spring, Koreatown restaurants feature stir-fried kosari on special lunch menus, and Korean-language newspapers track fern growth.
Doo Paek, a reporter for the Los Angeles-based Korea Times, said fern picking in the forest began more than 20 years ago.
"There were a few ladies who went to San Bernardino and they found ferns," he said. "They brought them back to L.A. to sell at church and the word spread. Now it has become a spring ritual to enjoy the sunshine and the weather."
San Bernardino Lands Officer Veronica Magnuson said she is glad the forest has become a cultural destination.
"The fern program has introduced lots of Asian Americans to their national forest," she said. "And we're seeing more and more of them in the summer."
The intense picking does not harm the ferns, whose Latin name is Pteridium aquilinum, she said. Visitors only need to avoid small sections of the forest where an endangered species, the southern rubber boa snake, likes to slither.
Although bracken ferns grow all over the world, such early Californians as Native American deer hunters and, later, miners, ate bracken fiddleheads. The plant now appears most often in Korean and Japanese food, edible plant researchers said.
These same researchers warned that bracken ferns have been proved to cause cancer in animals and have been linked to upper gastrointestinal cancers in human beings. But when they are boiled, the plant becomes less toxic, according to James Adams, a pharmacologist at USC, who said he has stopped eating the ferns.
While the plant may have nutritious proteins and minerals, Adams said, consuming the bracken fern in large quantities can also cause anemia and thiamine deficiency.
Along with maps, the forest service issues written warnings in three languages about the dangers of eating ferns.
Still, many Korean Americans who spent a recent Sunday picking ferns said they intend to keep eating their traditional springtime dish.
Aware of the poisons, these people said they planned to boil the ferns for at least 10 minutes as soon as they got home. Then the plants would be dried in the sun and stored in a cool place.
When they wanted to eat kosari, they said, they would stew the plant with beef in a soup called yukkae-jang or saute it. The stir-fried fern, which tastes like a stringier version of asparagus, can be eaten hot as part of a rice dish known as bibim bap, or chilled in a salad.
At Ami, a Koreatown restaurant, assistant chef Yum Ok Sun explained how she prepares fiddleheads as she stirred a deep pot filled with the dark brown stems. Before boiling them, she said, dried ferns must soak in lukewarm water for five hours. The restaurant purchased its kosari in dried form from a local supermarket.
She continued to boil the ferns for 30 minutes, testing the softness with her fingers. After straining the limp ferns, she cut them into small pieces. She massaged in a handful of garlic, several squirts of soy sauce and sesame oil, and tossed in green onions and sesame seeds. The marinade sizzled in a frying pan for about four minutes. Then she put the mixture on a bed of rice and added vegetables, slivers of beef and egg.
Some said Koreans first ate kosari when starvation prompted many of them to forage on mountainsides for edible plants. Others said Buddhist monks popularized the food.
Kosari is most often served at moon festivals and at special ancestor worship rituals.
"The older people love it," said Choi Kun, 55, who was searching for the plants in the forest recently along with two carloads of relatives. "But the younger people don't have much interest."
Indeed, it was mostly the older members of the Chun family who slowly scoured meadows and filled their plastic grocery bags with fiddleheads.
Heamie Chun, Gina Chun's niece, frowned at the thought of eating fern. "It's so sour," said the 6-year-old, wrinkling her nose.
Gina Chun looked apologetic.
"It's brown when you cook it, so the kids don't even know what it is," she said.