Buying guide to some Yunnan mushrooms
Updated: 2012-05-14 09:31
This needs little introduction, although many will wonder where truffles grow in Yunnan. They are found in the forested foothills in the northern parts of the province, and although they are harvested by "farmers", most of whom are from ethnic minority groups, they grow wild, and are not farmed. They were fed to pigs to increase their virility, and it was only recently that these villages have discovered the commercial value of these "smelly mushrooms", also known to them as pig-snout mushrooms. But make no mistake. These Chinese truffles are truffles, but they do not have the intensity of the French Perigord truffles. To pretend to be anything more is just not giving local products the respect they deserve. Nonetheless, the Chinese truffle should be valued on a different level. Because it costs less, it can also be used more generously in the home kitchen.
BOLETUS EDULIS (Niugan Jun)
This is a traditional favorite in Yunnan and is stewed, fried or eaten in soups. The Western chef knows it as porcini. The best fresh porcini appears between May and October, but niugan jun is also available all year, dried, in packets and in the supermarkets. Yunnan is the largest producer of porcini in China, by far the best producer in terms of quality and quantity. Sichuan province also produces some, as do the neighboring provinces.
TRICHOLOMA MATSUTAKE (Song Rong)
This is again one of those commercial fairytales. Recent legend had it that these pine mushrooms were just sold as common vegetables in the markets of the Lijiang area. The Japanese tourists came, recognized them and sent the prizes rocketing. Now, it's probably the region's most valuable export to Japan. One thing to note when buying dried matsutake mushrooms. The tidily whole cream-colored dried ones that the shopkeepers so glibly try to pass off as "wild" mushrooms are cultivated. It's the untidily sliced, darker mushrooms that are genuinely wild. They are also a lot more aromatic. Use dried matsutake in soups (ideally paired with free-range chicken) or rehydrated and stir-fried.
MORCHELLA CONICA (Yangdu Jun)
Known as goat-belly mushrooms in Yunnan, these are the wild morels that grow in fairy rings around fertile places such as sheep pens. They are now highly treasured as Chinese cuisine chefs recognize their potential. They are available flash-frozen and vacuum dried, but they are sold mostly whole. You will need to check the quality, as sizes vary in a packet. They are best used in flavorful stews, or braised in chicken stock and then stir-fried.
AURICULARIA AURICULA (Hei Mu'er)
This is the common agaric mushroom that is universally used in Chinese cuisine from north to south. While the black wood-ear mushroom is more often used in stir-fries in the south to provide color and contrast, northerners value this mushroom for its health-giving benefits. In Beijing, for example, it is used in an appetizer or salad, dressed with vinegar and soy sauce and garnished with ginger and spring onion julienne. In traditional Chinese medicine, the wood-ear is boiled in water for hours, and the resulting concoction is drunk to lower cholesterol and blood lipids.
TIGER'S PAW MUSHROOM (Hei Huzhang Jun)
This is a really special one. Although it is widely found all across China where the temperature and humidity suits it, it is still rare. That is because, unlike other mushrooms that flourish in flocks, this one is a loner. In one patch of forest, there may only be one or two, and the foragers have to walk pretty far to gather a basketful. But it is a pretty big mushroom, and it is really the size of a tiger's paw and only slightly smaller than a man's palm. The flavor is earthy and intense, and its texture softens as soon as you rehydrate. Best used in soups or rehydrated and thinly sliced in stir-fries. The stalks tend to be tough and woody, but you can keep them for a vegetarian stockpot.