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Chinese Black Mushrooms

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 21, 22, and 28

In the United States, the most well-known mushroom in Chinese dishes are simply called 'Chinese mushrooms.' That is but one of this mushroom’s many names. It is also called 'Chinese black mushrooms' or you may know them by their Japanese name, shiitake mushroom. Others know these mushrooms by other names including 'black forest mushrooms,' 'golden oak mushrooms,' 'oakwood mushrooms,' 'lion’s mane,' 'pasania,' 'nameko,' 'doubloon,' 'fragrant mushrooms,' and 'donku,' to name but a few (and not all really refer to just this very mushroom). No matter the name, Chinese and other Asian people adore the rich meat-like taste of these fragrant mushrooms that the Chinese call xiang-gu.

Japan is the world’s largest exporter of this mushroom--cum fungus--when dry. Once referred to as a plant in the vegetable kingdom, fungus is now more correct, but people rarely say that as they prefer to speak of these rapidly-growing non-chlorophyl-producing living plants as mushrooms. The shiitake is its the most common name in the United States and folks do not realize they are speaking Japanese. The oyster mushroom is the world’s most widely available cultivated mushroom, but this one is also cultivated. In China, these black fungi are the third most popular mushroom, preferred dry to reconstituted, because the dried mushroom flavor is more intense. Compare a fresh one with a dried one soaked for half an hour and then simmered for a like amount of time in just half a cup of water and see if you agree.

Not just called xiang gu, in China these mushrooms are also known as tung gu and are considered as both a fragrant and a flower mushroom. These mushrooms are members of the Lentinus edodes family of mushrooms; and there are many different strains of them. Originally described as Agaricus edodes, all are delicacies and now generally assigned to the Lentinus genus. This mushroom family is exceptionally meaty, is a vegetarian’s dream, called 'meat without bone,' and some say are more tasty than a piece of steak.

No one buys but one mushroom, though at the price of the best, poor folk do consider doing just that. It is not uncommon for people to pay large sums of money and purchase the very best dried mushrooms they can find. These look like flowers, the most expensive have deep cross-hatch lines on the top or cap. The cap is much thicker than their inexpensive cousins whose caps are thin with no cracks or splits on them.

The shiitake name may be, but the mushroom is not new to the Chinese; nor is it a Japanese mushroom. For more than two thousand years it has been known in China as a healing food. Mushrooms are featured in the Shen Nong Herbal Classic, circa two thousand years ago; there described with strong medicinal value. Specifically, the xiang gu were discussed in a manual totally devoted to mushrooms dated 1313 CE. The earliest work specifically about this mushroom is purported to be by Wu Sang Guang who lived in the Zhejiang region during the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1127 CE). Other writings show their culinary potential and that they were in use in China, Japan, and Korea more than a thousand years ago.

This mushroom has a hearty woodsy texture and taste and is meatier that many other mushrooms, lots more than the white button mushroom called champignon in French. That mushroom is Agaricus bisporus, is most popular in the United States; and is in every supermarket. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms and other mushrooms are making huge increases in popularity.

The cap of this mushroom can measure up to six inches in diameter. It is flat across the top and thin when young but as it ages, the edges curl in hiding the gills and the cap gets thicker. When fresh, experts suggest selecting the youngest which are usually less than two inches in diameter, as they are the tastiest. They also suggest not using the stems because they are fibrous and woody. A few sources, however, do advise not wasting the stems; use them for soups and stocks as they offer flavor enhancement. However, they also say to remove and discard them before finishing, consume the liquids they are cooked in, and strain that liquid before adding it to any dish.

This black mushroom, also called a 'tree oak mushroom,' grows best on oak logs and on oak conifers, which in Japan are called shii trees. Can you now see why the Japanese call them shiitake? They can also grow on alder, beech, birch, chestnut, poplar, sweet gum, willow, and other broad-leafed woods. They grow best on dead or dying trees also on sawdust, cottonseed hulls, and other waste products. However, dense woods are best because they produce repeated mushroom crops, up to six years. For the less dense substrates, three years is considered the fruiting limit. In northern climates, the cut logs produce mushrooms twice a year, spring and fall, with fall the bigger crop. When cut, wood the mushrooms are growing on starts to become soft, with little left to feed the spores. Then, another set of fresh-cut and spore-inoculated logs are needed.

In Japan in 1904, Shozaburo Mimura wrote about inoculating logs to cultivate these mushrooms and that one can get more than just when collecting them in the wild. Using that knowledge, anyone with space to do so, can now grow them. That and other research suggest it best to chop down live oak trees and drill holes in them. After cutting them down, inoculate the fresh-cut logs with spores and cover the holes with beeswax. One recommended protocol is to stack the logs and keep them wet for half a year before putting them on a rack. We did ours setting one log in each direction to leave breathing room and prepare them for sprouting. Some months after they dry out on their racks, we soak our logs one to two days (in a discarded bathtub, thanks to a grandchild’s eagle eye in a junk yard). This enhances the sprouting and assures a larger crop. Years ago, when logs were first used to sprout these mushrooms, they were chopped down and slashed, and old mushrooms rubbed on them.

Should you want to grow this type of mushroom indoors, you can purchase packed sawdust already inoculated with spores or inoculate your own. This technique does well under the right conditions, usually produces but a few crops, at best, until all the food is exhausted, and it produces many less mushrooms than growing them on logs. Be aware, that when growing mushrooms indoors, inhaled spores can cause allergies in this closed environment. While we issue that warning, please note that based upon where these mushrooms are grown, particularly old ones, depending upon how long you store them, the mushrooms can accumulate cadmium, selenium, and other heavy metals and can contain substances toxic to some people. This can cause a simple allergic reaction or a more serious one, anything from a mild itch to a full blown allergy. Should you be allergic or have any other problems, no matter how tempting mushrooms may be, do not eat them.

On the positive side, Shen Nong and other Chinese herbal doctors told people why to consume these mushrooms, other than for their terrific taste. Early Chinese herbalists recommended them for many conditions. They were used for the treatment of heart disease, for colds and flu, for the elderly, and for anyone who needed more vitality or qi. Current science tells us that there are immuno-stimulants in this mushroom, and one of their polysaccharide’s, lentinan, is reported to inhibit the production of cholesterol, be they fresh or dried.

The shiitake is said to have anti-tumoral properties. In Japan, doctors recommend and use them to treat certain types of cancers. This mushroom’s LEM or Lentinula edodes mycelia, in animal studies, have been shown to be stimulators of the so-called killer T-cells, helping produce antibodies against hepatitus B and HIV. There is also preliminary research that indicates they have antiviral impact.

These 'black forest mushrooms,' their preferred name, are very popular with vegetarians because they are one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin B12. In addition, vegetarians and non-vegetarians recommend not using a lot of salt or soy sauce when cooking them. The reason, the shiitake is rich in glutamates, as is MSG (mono-sodium-glutamate), and so they are flavor enhancers and need no others.

As with any dry mushroom, keep them in an airtight container, preferably with several not too old bay leaves in it. The bay leaves retard, even eliminate spore and tiny animal development. They are good with these and other dried mushrooms. Make sure that the storage place is cool, dry, and dark. Though dried mushrooms have a long shelf-life, do not keep them forever, a six-month supply is a good amount to have around.

To use dried black mushrooms, soak them in warm water for about twenty or thirty minutes before using them. After soaking, cut away and discard the stems (or use them elsewhere as previously indicated). Remember not to discard the soaking water. It has fine flavor and should be used in soups and stocks. If you do not need the liquid immediately, reduce it by boiling for some minutes, strain then cool it, and pour it into an ice-cube tray. Pop these and put them in a plastic freezer bag for future use. The water that mushrooms soak in is useful with a starch thickener in stir-fry dishes. Be creative and use it with cornstarch, arrowroot, water chestnut, lotus root flour, or any other starch. Most starches are best mixed with a room temperature or a cold liquid. Each of them has different ability to thicken. Mix the starch with liquid, and stir slowly until all is well mixed; next, bring the liquid, in a dish, to the boil and stir until thickened.

Before sharing delicious recipes using these dry mushrooms. there are places to purchase spores, should you want to try your hand. We have used: Fungi Perfecti, PO Box 7634, Olympia WA 98507; their e-mail: info@fungi.com and their website: www.fungi.com
Sumptuous Succulent Mushrooms
18 dry shiitake mushrooms
dash of salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons Chinese wine or dry sherry
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce (optional)
2 Tablespoons yam flour, cornstarch, or other thickener
1. Soak shiitake mushrooms in two cups warm water for thirty minutes. Remove them from the liquid, strain the liquid though a fine strainer, and set it aside.
2. Cut stems away from mushroom caps and discard.
3. Bring large portion of mushroom liquid to the boil then add salt, and sugar, reduce the heat and let simmer for a minute or two, then add wine (and oyster sauce) and the mushrooms and simmer for twenty minutes.
4. Mix flour or cornstarch with set aside liquid, end bring mushrooms back to the boil before adding it. Allow to boil for two minutes, then remove from heat and allow mushrooms to cool in the liquid. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Mushrooms, Sausages, and Eggs Over Rice
8 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 or 3 Chinese sausages (optional)
1 Tablespoon corn oil
3 eggs
2 cups raw rice, cooked and cooled to room temperature
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
salt and white pepper, to taste
1 scallion, minced
1. Soak mushrooms in one cup warm water, drain and sliver them. Strain and reserve half the liquid.
2. Slice sausages (if using them), heat corn oil in a wok and stir-fry them for one minute, remove them from pan and drain on a paper towel.
3. Beat eggs and add sesame oil and beat until combined then add to oil left in the wok and fry, stirring, for one minute until almost set, add mushrooms and remove from the heat immediately.
4. Bring reserved mushroom water to boil, add rice, stir, and heat through and transfer to a large warm serving platter or bowl tossing with salt and pepper, if needed. Remember, two cups of rice makes six cups of cooked rice.
5. Pour egg mixture over the rice, sprinkle with scallion pieces and serve.
Duck Soup with Mushrooms
1/2 fresh duck, cut into four pieces
4 cups chicken broth
20 dried Chinese black forest mushrooms, soaked in two cups warm water for half an hour, cut away the stems; reserve the water
20 straw mushrooms, cut in half
1/4 cup cloud ear mushrooms, soaked twenty minutes in warm water, then rinsed
1/4 cup rice wine
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 cup bamboo shoots, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
8 shrimp, peeled, remove black vein and cut in half the long way, then in half across these pieces
1. Steam duck and broth in a deep bowl for half an hour, remove duck and discard bones, and cut any large pieces into smaller ones.
2. Strain the liquid, rinse the bowl and return duck meat and stock to it. Strain and add the mushroom soaking water.
3. Quarter the Chinese black forest mushrooms and coarsely chop the cloud ears ones before adding them and the straw mushrooms, rice wine, salt, bamboo shoots, and the sliced carrot; steam another half an hour.
4. Add shrimp and let rest one minute, then serve.
Liver with Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots
1/2 pound calves liver, outside membranes removed
1 Tablespoon corn oil
8 dried shiitake or another mushroom, soaked for half an hour in warm water, drain and discard stems, and cut into thin strips
8 fresh straw or another type of mushroom, cut in quarters
1 Tablespoon water chestnut powder
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy sauce
1/4 cup bamboo shoots cut into thin strips the same size as the shiitake mushrooms
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
1. Cut liver into one inch by half inch strips and put into heat-proof bowl. Pour two cups of boiling water over the liver and set aside for three minutes, then drain and discard the water; then mix the drained liver, water chestnut powder, cornstarch, and soy sauce coating the liver completely.
2. Heat oil in wok and stir-fry both mushrooms for two minutes. Add liver and stir-fry for one minute, then add bamboo shoots and scallions and stir-fry another minute. Remove from heat. Serve immediately.

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