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Chinese Mushrooms: Tree Ears

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 25 and 26

Mushrooms are mentioned and depicted in Chinese literature and art. Their collection and consumption predates the Christian era. Chinese herbalists have used them medicinally for more than four thousand years. While growing in popularity in the United States, they have always played important roles in Chinese culinary and Chinese medicine. That they are important in both is not surprising because for the Chinese, food is medicine and medicine is food.

This article, the second in a series about Chinese mushrooms, discusses a food the Chinese call 'meat without bone.' Tofu is another with the same name. The article discusses tree ear fungi, one of the more than three hundred kinds of edible mushrooms that grow wild in the forests and fields of China. Many are now successfully cultivated. The previous article explored locale and uses of bamboo mushrooms; that was in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(4) on pages 25 and 30.

The goal is to discuss other mushrooms after this one. Philosophically, Chinese prefer odd numbers and that is one reason we are planning to write about seven mushrooms, in total. Another is, that there are seven Chinese emotions: joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate, and desire; these are all inherent human feelings. According to a an ancient Chinese volume called The Record of Instructions, these emotions can not be divided. Every feeling about mushrooms is believed to be emotional. In the above book, everything about the seven emotions is considered intuitive knowledge. Putting these two items together, nothing should be intuitive about mushrooms because all too many are very, very poisonous. About one-third of the ones known in China are poisonous and so one does need to know about the most popular and non-poisonous of these emotionally laden food items.

In the Western world, as in the Eastern one, mushrooms are not new foods, nor are they new herbals; there are early references to them during the times of the Pharaohs in Egypt, maybe even earlier. Chinese herbalists have been using them for more than four thousand years and China now dominates the world export market for cultivated mushrooms.

Known also as domestication, the cultivation of mushrooms was recorded early in Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE). There is information that tree or cloud ear was the first mushroom to be domesticated. Before that, they and all wild mushrooms were a gourmet’s delight. In Sung Dynasty times (960 - 1279 CE) there was a cult of mycophilic commitment and a monograph written about wild edible mushrooms. We have not located a translation of that tome.

Understandings, along with recipes, and herbal uses for tree ear mushrooms are extensive in China. This mushroom is among the best known and most used in there, and it has many names including wood ear, cloud ear, even Jew's ear. That last name is a slurring of the Ear of Judas, who according to legend, hung himself from a branch of an elder tree. One variety of tree ear generally does grow on elder wood.

The botanical name of this family of mushrooms is Auricularia auricular. They have a relative called the silver fungus or white tree ear whose botanical name is Tremella fuciformis. Future articles will be about monkey head (Hericium erinaceus), shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes), straw mushrooms (Volvariella volvacea), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and golden needle which the Japanese call the enoki mushroom (Flammulina velutipes). The tree ear mushroom is the only mushroom of the ones in this series, maybe the only one among all edible mushrooms, whose taste is the same fresh or dried (after reconstituting them by soaking), the texture is close to the same, as well.

Tree or wood ears are traditional food in China; they were known and grew wild there for at least two thousand years. There are many varieties of mushrooms in this family, about fifteen or twenty species. They are a kind of jelly fungus widely distributed that get their name because they grow on wood, their convoluted shape resembling ears. When fresh, they are somewhat gummy, some are transparent, others brown in color, their surface smooth or bumpy. Dried, they become dark, the larger ones turn black, and all of them turn brittle. These fungi grow not only in China but also in Europe and the United States. It is believed they got where they are thanks to their spores, not just man’s efforts. The spores are light enough to be carried long distances by wind and/or water.

Tree ears grow in bunches on the trunks of trees, most are broad leaf varieties though some grow on fir tress and the branches of various other species. Oak is most common, but they can be found on banyon, birch, elder, poplar and other woods. When cultivated, they grow on artificial logs that use diverse agricultural wastes such as cotton seed shells, various types of sawdust, sugarcane, rice straw, and corn residues.

Fresh, the ears are about four or five times bigger than when dried and they weigh about ten times as much. They are believed to be healthy and have considerable incomplete protein--lots of amino acids--in their composition. One hundred grams of dried tree ears are said to have almost eleven grams of protein, almost no fat, sixty-five grams of carbohydrate, close to four hundred milligrams of calcium, half that of phosphorus, almost the same amount of iron, and various polysaccharides. In one study, at least, they stimulated DNA and RNA synthesis in human lymphocytes in vitro; in others they impact blood.

Ancient and modern Chinese believe them good for infections of the lungs because they remove irritations and smooth its surface. They also recommend them for hemorrhoids and as cleansing agents for both stomach and intestines. They think them cool, in the yin/yang dichotomy, and they use them to quicken blood and to stop bleeding. Recently, western science agrees about the tree ear role in blood coagulation. The Chinese also believe that this black fungus arrests tumor growth and strengthens the heart by decreasing the symptoms of heart attack and stroke. This belief may be related to their role, already mentioned, with respect to human lymphocytes. In addition to all of the above, the Chinese believe tree ears to be a longevity tonic.

Related, to the dark tree ears, the silver or white tree ears are sometimes called 'hair wood ear.' Do not confuse that with the black hair vegetable which grows near or at the edge of the sea and is better known as hair moss. These light fungi are curly and bushy and always transparent when fresh.

Silver tree ears are found in southern regions when fresh and in all provinces when dried. As such, they are lower in price than their black cousins, the reverse of what is found in the United States. Their medicinal value is often lower, as well. They and darker ones are used to increase physical and mental energy and are considered mild and sweet.

Either white, brown, or black when dried, they need rinsing before and after reconstituting them and before using them. The lighter ones are more delicate, the darker ones have a more concentrated taste. Called mu er or yun er in Chinese, traditionally there were five kinds of tree ears used frequently in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The differences are based upon the growing medium and the type and are not always interchangeable for intended purposes.

These mushrooms have caused toxicity in susceptible individuals, though that is rare. Negative reactions to them at lower levels include solar dermatitis, blistering, and swelling. Some literature advises possible anti-fertility effects. Chinese doctors say that they should not be taken by pregnant or lactating women. On the positive side, these fungi are widely used to treat debility caused by childbirth, relieve pains and muscle spasms, to stimulate bowel activity, and to build qi.

Although not very flavorful in and of themselves, tree ear mushrooms add texture to dishes and they hold sauces on their many surfaces. Dry tree ears rehydrate readily, are wonderful embellishments for soups, sauces, stuffings, and the like, and they even potentiate flavors of other foods. A favorite way to prepare them is to soak and wash them in warm water, then put them in a good-size bowl with water and Chinese white sugar cubes, and steam them for about an hour. After preparing them this way, they can be eaten hot, warm, or cold, liquid and all. Steamed with or without the addition of a few lotus seeds and pitted dried longans and pine nuts (the Chinese would use dried Chinese olive pits), the white ones, also called silver ear mushrooms, are often served at the end of a meal for brain nourishment and their blood tonic properties.

When reconstituting this group of mushrooms, they can be washed and then soaked in warm water for half an hour or more. Many Chinese chefs prefer to put them in water, bring it to the boil, remove the pan from the heat, and then let it sit for an hour. Doing this enables adding them, after draining and rinsing, at or near the end of cooking a dish. Another preparation method is to make them into a tea. This is said to enhance health, even cure headaches. Fresh, if you can find them, they can be used raw and they do have a faint woodsy aroma. They are good in almost every cooked dish but adding them too early and they become gummy.
Mushroom Platter Delight
1 ounce dried black tree ear fungi, rinsed well
1 ounce dried white tree ear fungi, rinsed well
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water
1 ounce dried bamboo mushrooms
1 cup vegetarian stock
1 ounce fresh straw mushrooms
1 ounce canned gluten, rinsed with boiling water
1 ounce dried Chinese hawthorn or wolfberries
2 Tablespoons thin or mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
1. In separate pots, add boiling water to the tree fungi, return to the boil, cover and remove from the heat. Let stand at least half an hour, rinse each well, and cut away the thick stem-like parts. They can then be diced, if desired.
2. After the shiitake mushrooms have soaked for at least twenty minutes, strain their liquid into the pot, discard the sandy remainder, and put the mushrooms in the soup pot; dicing them is optional.
3. Pour boiling water over the bamboo mushrooms, drain well, rinse with cold water, cut into one inch pieces, and set aside. Do likewise with the gluten, which can be cut into simmer pieces if desired.
4. Bring the stock to the boil, pour over the shiitake mushrooms, then add the bamboo mushrooms and the gluten, also the berries, soy sauce and wine and bring this back to the boil.
5. Mix corn starch and water chestnut flour with one-quarter cup of cold water. Add it and the tree ears, bamboos mushroom and gluten pieces and stir until thick and clear, then serve on a somewhat flat platter with sloping sides.

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