About Mushrooms and Fungi

Mushrooms and Fungi

When gathering wild fungi, take special care. Either go picking with an experienced, qualified guide or check with the local authorities or accurately illustrated identification books. Unfortunately, there are some species which look very much alike and while one may taste delicious, a look-alike could make you very ill or deal.

Many kinds of edible fungi are used in Asian cooking. Those most widely used are black fungus and white fungus, both available in dried form. The advantage of having them on your pantry shelf is that they keep indefinitely and add texture and exotic interest to any dish you prepare. They are, in fact, a great standby for those times when it is too late to go shopping and you wonder what to cook that doesn't take too long and depends on dried and canned ingredients from your pantry.

Black fungus : (Auricularia polytricha) Also known as cloud ear, tree ear, wood fungus, mouse ear, and jelly mushrooms. It grows rapidly on a variety of woods including mango and kapok and is very similar to another fungus called Jew's ear (A.auricula). Some say the smaller cloud ear or mouse ear has a more delicate flavor than the larger wood ear.

It is mostly sold dried but is also available fresh. In its fresh form (or after the dried fungus has been reconstituted by soaking in water) it is easy to see how it derives its rather fanciful names. The frilly, brownish clumps of translucent tissue with a little imagination resemble the delicate curls of the human ear or billowing clouds. In the case of tiny mouse ear fungus, the rounded shapes which result when it is soaked are amusingly similar to those observed on the heads of Mickey Mouse and his Mouseketeers!

Wood fungus is prized in Chinese cuisine for its crunchy texture and therefore added to dishes only for the last few minutes of cooking. Delightful in salads, soups and stir-fries, it has no flavor of its own, but absorbs the seasonings it is cooked with.

Purchasing and storing : In its dried form there is a choice between the small variety which looks like flakes of greyish-black paper, or the larger variety which, even in its dried state, measures about 5-8 cm across and is black on one side, grey or beige on the other. After soaking, these need to be sliced into strips. All dried fungi keep well if stored airtight.

Preparation : Fungus must be soaked in warm water prior to use (15 minutes for small, 30 minutes for large). It swells to many times its size. After soaking, the fungus is rinsed thoroughly and trimmed of the tough, gritty part where it was attached to the wood. Then, particularly if using the large variety, it is cut into pieces of a suitable size and shape before adding to a dish.

Medicinal uses : Black fungus has a reputation in Chinese herbal medicine for increasing the fluidity of the blood and improving circulation. It is given to patients who suffer from atherosclerosis. Western medicine is now investigating centuries-old claims made by Eastern sages and finding them surprisingly accurate.

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