中文 |

Season of mushrooms

By : China Daily | Published: 2018-08-31

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[Photo provided to China Daily]

Editor's note: Traditional and fusion cooking styles, regional and international ingredients and a new awareness of healthy eating are all factors contributing to an exciting time for Chinese cuisine. We explore the possibilities.

[InKunming--China] An ingredient closely associated with Chinese cuisine is the dried mushroom, intensely fragrant and instantly recognizable.

Oddly enough, it is soft, spongy and a lot less aromatic when fresh, but the dehydration process concentrates its flavors and turns it into a hard, shriveled, easily stored pantry basic - even if it does look like it has been mummified in the process.

It is a rare Chinese kitchen that does not have a packet or two of dried mushrooms tucked away on the shelves.

The Chinese mushroom, also known as the shiitake mushroom, is an extremely versatile ingredient.

Thinly sliced, it adds instant flavor to any stir-fry of meat and vegetables. Wok-blasted in hot fat and then slowly braised whole in a rich stock, it is valued as a main dish, and a favorite pairing is with chicken feet.

In vegetarian cuisine, the Chinese mushroom is used to make stock and a host of culinary creations limited only by the chef's imagination.

Quality often decides how this mushroom is used.

The smallest mushrooms, thin and black, are known as "gold coins". They are widely used in everyday cooking as an affordable flavor enhancer and, despite their size, they are very aromatic and tasty.

Larger black mushrooms are also divided according to where and when they are grown. The better ones are harvested in the cold season and known as donggu, winter mushrooms.

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Green vegetable with mushrooms and stewed chicken with mushrooms are among the most common mushroom dishes in China.[Photo provided to China Daily]

These slowly grow on the rotting wood of deciduous trees, and in winter they take a long time to mature. The extended growing period makes them more flavorful.

The best type of donggu are those with significant cracks on the surface, so that the creamy flesh is exposed beneath the black cap. These mushrooms are known as huagu, or flower mushrooms, after the blooming pattern on the caps.

Huagu also tend to be thicker, and are valued for their fleshy caps and velvety texture. The most expensive are those from Hokkaido in Japan.

In recent years, however, better production processes have helped China catch up, and the country is now the largest exporter of the Chinese mushroom, of every grade and quality. Major producers are Henan and Zhejiang provinces, with quality flower mushrooms coming from the deciduous forests of the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin.

Mushroom cultivation was recorded in China more than 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Evangelical monks from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) took the art of mushroom cultivation to Japan.

Shiitake mushrooms are not the only dried mushrooms available in China.

Straw mushrooms have long been dried for keeping, and again, the drying makes them intensely fragrant. More exotic mushrooms that are dried include cepes, morels, porcini, and the uniquely Chinese zhusun, the bamboo pith bridal veil mushroom.

Fresh mushrooms are harvested every year during the rainy season in southwestern China. There is a street filled with specialist mushroom restaurants in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan.

Every year from July to September, the normally quiet restaurants bustle with diners lining up for a taste of Yunnan's famous mushrooms.

In fact, mushrooms are a major attraction for tourists and locals, especially when cooked in the hotpot with its parade of endless fungi in all shapes and sizes.

This southwestern region in China boasts the most varieties of mushroom in the world concentrated in one area, with both edible and nonedible mushrooms and fungus.

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Green vegetable with mushrooms and stewed chicken with mushrooms are among the most common mushroom dishes in China.[Photo provided to China Daily]

In the village markets, early shoppers can seek out freshly foraged mushrooms, including precious matsutake or pine mushrooms and even the occasional truffle.

Bright yellow chanterelles, known as jiyoujun, have been likened to the rich golden fat of local chickens. Deeply colored boletus mushrooms of the porcini family are described as niuganjun, beef liver mushrooms. Morels, with their tripe like markings on the caps, are called yangdujun, goat stomach mushrooms.

There are also mushrooms that are found only in Yunnan, like the ganbajun. This is deeply scented and very dense and is a local favorite. Shredded and fried in plenty of oil, garlic and chili, it becomes a dish to be enjoyed with rice or Yunnan's famous rice noodles.

In appearance, it resembles clusters of hen-in-the-woods mushrooms.

Local gourmets also seek out a green-tinged mushroom known as qingtoujun, green-headed mushroom. It is slightly toxic and has to be very well cooked before it is eaten. But it is so delicious that people risk hospitalization, or even death, just to enjoy it.

Less potent but equally popular is the bamboo mushroom, or zhusun, a beautiful mushroom that starts life egg-shaped. The egg "hatches" and sends out a little spongy phallic column that is, in turn, demurely draped by a lacy veil.

This mushroom is valued for its crunchy texture, which it retains even when dried and rehydrated. For this reason, it is valued as an ingredient for the stock-based Chinese soups.

In the cooler regions of northern Yunnan, there grows a musky-tasting mushroom that the locals used to feed to pigs that were reluctant to mate. It grew in pine needle beds under the trees, and so the name for it was songrong, pine mushroom.

The Japanese call this matsutake.

This previously unappreciated mushroom now commands very high prices and is a major income for local foragers. Yunnan matsutake is now a major export, especially to Japan.

Mushrooms are nature's gift to the gourmet, but it is a gift that has to be savored carefully.

paulined@chinadaily.com.cn

Recipe

Braised Chinese mushrooms

20 rehydrated Chinese mushrooms

50g chicken fat, finely diced

3-4 cloves whole garlic

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Mushrooms need fat, which they absorb. Searing the mushrooms in chicken fat is a good way to turn them into velvety morsels.

Heat up a wok and render the chicken fat over low heat. Turn up the heat and rapidly add the whole garlic cloves and the mushroom caps. When the mushrooms are all sizzling, add the oyster sauce and enough water to just cover the ingredients.

Turn down to a simmer and braise until the liquid is reduced and the garlic is soft. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce.

Mushrooms, chicken and chestnuts

1 chicken (about 1.5kg)

20 Chinese mushrooms, rehydrated

500g chestnuts, shelled and peeled

2-3 shallots (or half a brown onion), diced

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Dress the chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces. Rinse and dry.

Heat up a tablespoon of oil in a wok and add the diced onion. Add the chicken pieces and brown the meat.

Add the mushrooms and chestnuts.

Drizzle over the soy sauces, stir to mix and then add enough water to cover the ingredients. Boil until the stock is reduced by half, then simmer till chestnuts are soft.

Adjust seasoning after tasting, and add the sesame oil. Bring back to a boil, then turn off heat. Serve.


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