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
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.