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Paddy, Golden Needle, Pom Pom, and the Mushroom of Immortality

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(2) page(s): 19, 22, and 30

The Chinese regard various mushrooms as able to prolong life and/or cure disease. Always a bit magical and mysterious, people are super interested in this food item, and previous issues have discussed the bamboo mushrooms in Volume 6(4) on pages 25 and 30; the black or forest mushroom also known by its Japanese name, the shiitake in Volume 7(4) on pages 21-22 and 28; the oyster mushroom in Volume 8(1) on pages 15 and 16; and tree ear mushrooms in Volume 7(3) on pages 25-26. To satisfy the many requests received that we print more about mushrooms and in a speedier time frame, this issue looks at four others: the paddy mushroom, those known as golden needles, the monkey head mushroom, and the mushroom of immortality, known in Chinese as ling zhi.

To allay some confusion about Chinese mushroom terminology that readers inquired about, the general word for mushroom is gu. This also can be transliterated and spelled as ku. That said, you need to know that some of these fungi are classified as to where they grow. You might also see the word chi for the soft earth mushroom types, the word chun for the hard grown varieties, and the word er for those that grow on wood. These are words used when speaking about mushrooms. Sometimes they are used correctly, other times used generically; but all refer to edible fungi that have been used for foods as far back as ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, and Roman civilizations have recorded their usage.

PADDY OR STRAW MUSHROOMS are, botanically speaking, Volvariella volvacea; they are also known as grass mushrooms and warm mushrooms; the latter name because of their need for tropical or subtropical temperatures. Known in Chinese as cho gu, there are many varieties, all Volvaria or Volvariella, but not all Volvacae. For example, one is Volvaria esculenta. No matter their botanical name, this family of fungi are one of the third-most widely cultivated edible mushroom family in the world; yet not much information about them is known. No one can explain why that is so. Perhaps it is because there are about a hundred different species. Or, perhaps it is because less than a handful of them grow in Southeast Asia or China.

Chinese nutrition and medical personnel say these mushrooms have cool energy and an ability to reduce blood fat. That makes them popular in many culinary creations. However, unlike many other mushrooms, they are not always available fresh. Perhaps that is why many people may be unfamiliar with them. However, they can always be had canned, and often are found dried. This latter variety is their least popular form because they have a strong taste that some people do not care for. When fresh, they do not travel well. Also, they do not stay but two or three days after they are harvested. Buy them small in size if you want them to have a more intense flavor, and purchase them either peeled or with their edible shroud removed. That edible outside, some say, is their peel. If you say you have never tasted any, we bet you have because they can be found hiding among the stir-fried vegetable or animal protein food ingredients in many dishes.

In China, the country that grows the most tonnage of these mushrooms, and almost everywhere else, they are preferred fresh. Once you have tasted them that way, you will understand why people consider them the best of all edible mushrooms. They have a delicate taste and are somewhat sweet and silky in texture. Some people think of them as slippery, and they certainly are, when trying to pick whole ones up with chopsticks. That problem can be solved by cutting them in half before preparing them. If you are not the cook, pick them up piercing them with a chopstick. If you are the cook, sliced them thin, cut them in half, or leave whole; it matters not as they are very popular every way. When you bite into a whole one, the flavor sensation plus the textural treat are superb. These mushrooms grow well in warm climatic zones. And they grow well on paddy straw (hence their name), on rice and cotton wastes and cottonseed hulls, even on tea leaves after they have been brewed. They came into Chinese use in the late 1700's or early 1800's; one report specifying exactly in 1822. Another says they were first grown in China at the Nan-hua Buddhist Monastery in the Guangdong Province, no date given. About a hundred years later, they made their way to the Phillippines and other Asian countries and to Japan where they are now popular and called fururotake.

These are one of the easiest of mushrooms to cultivate. As one of the fastest growing mushrooms known, from putting in spawn to harvest, they take only ten days. When growing your own, it is fun to watch the cap or volva that starts out light but turns dark brown in a day or two; then as they age, they lighten somewhat.

I recently learned that not everyone likes these mushrooms. One reason may be their aroma when fresh; some say that their odor is peculiar. Another reason may be because they have heard that some traditional herbal doctors say not to eat too many of them. They certainly should not be eaten raw, but few people do. The reason is that they contain cardiac toxins that some people react to. That is not a problem for most because the toxins are very heat sensitive and when the mushrooms are cooked the toxicity is greatly reduced, sometimes virtually eliminated. These very same cardio-active proteins have a positive side and are the reasons why others adore eating them. The Chinese traditional herbal doctors advise that they lower blood pressure and inhibit some tumor cells.

When buying these mushrooms, if in a can, do rinse them several times with clear water to remove the saltiness and decrease any taste of the tin. If fresh, they are best before the veil breaks and should be used in a day or two of purchase. Use them in soups, stir-fried dishes, casseroles, and dishes similar to the ones whose recipes follow thie article. Some peope have reported soaking them in thin or diluted mushroom soy for half an hour then baking them tightly covered in an oven at medium heat for a like amount of time. Be sure there is some liquid in the pan before baking them.

GOLDEN NEEDLE MUSHROOMS, botanically known as Flammulina velutipes, are another mushroom type used by the Chinese and other Asian populations. Their growth habitat is widespread. You may have met these slender items on a menu by their Japanese name, enoki, which means hack or huckleberry. The Japanese name derives from the tree they call enoke. These mushrooms also go by many other names including enokitake meaning snow peak mushroom, winter mushroom, warm mushroom, velvet foot or velvet stem mushrooms, slimy mushrooms, and snow mushrooms. The furry part of their name is less used now because this mushroom, when cultivated, is exposed to chilled growing rooms and elevated amounts of carbon dioxide that keep the cap tiny and the stem or foot losing its furry nature. In this environment the stem grows longer than in the wild; so when scouting for them in the woods, look for short stemmed large cap specimens. They grow on hardwoods and sometimes on pine trees.

Golden mushrooms, wild or cultivated, are very flavorful. Their stems are rarely removed and rarely minced. This is mostly to preserve their elegant look. In spite of their apparent fragility, they can be cooked for long periods; and when they are they retain their shape, texture, and flavor. Cook them or not, they should be rinsed before consuming. Traditionally, they are prepared in soups and in stir-fry dishes and used as decor on many vegetable and fish dishes.

Sometimes served raw in the United States, this family of popular mushrooms contain a cardiotoxic protein that can cause swelling and respiratory inhibition in some people; but that happens only when they eat them raw. That toxin is rendered harmless when heated to the boiling point and kept at that temperature for twenty minutes. This can explain why some people cook these mushrooms for longer periods of time than other mushroom varieties. Most people are not sensitive to this toxin, at least not in small amounts. We note that such information is rarely discussed about these or other mushrooms with related toxins.

From traditional medicinal perspectives, Chinese sources report that this particular mushroom increases body height and weight if taken on a regular basis. They also say that it can be instrumental as a cure for liver disease and for gastroenteric ulcers. They are also known for their effectiveness against several types of cancer. People report that there may be a relationship between that fact and that these mushrooms grow near the city of Nagano, Japan, a city known for its unusually low cancer rate. The assumption is that the locals in that city eat large amounts of these golden mushrooms.

POM POM or MONKEYHEAD MUSHROOMS have just become available fresh in the United States. They grow on the west coast where you can purchase them fresh. In the dried form, they are now available on both coasts and in cities in between. That is terrific because this variety is an honored mushroom among for the Chinese. Botanically known as Hericium erinaceus, they look like hair or the mane of a lion in several species variations. That said, some people refer to any or all of them as lion-head mushrooms while others say they look like a hedgehog and call them hedgehog mushrooms. Other common names include bear’s head, old man’s beard, bearded tooth, and sheep’s tooth mushroom. The name pom pom is the newest and the name marketing them in the United States.

Though new in western countries, these mushrooms that grow at heights more than one thousand feet have been collected for centuries. There are records of them at least since the seventh century CE when people roamed forests to find them. They may have known then what we know now, that these are one of if not the most nutritious of mushrooms used for digestive disorders. This use may have origins in the fact that these fungi are themselves highly resistant to bacterial diseases.

This family of mushrooms grows on dead trees be they oak, walnut, beech, maple, or other broad-leaf tree varieties. Almost all are white when young, some become pink or yellow, and all turn dark tan then brown when they age. One source indicates that these mushrooms grow in pairs but on different trees and if one dies or is picked, its partner is sure to die, too. Though we have eaten them fresh, and they now grow in Oregon and the state of Washington, to date none are shipped widely because this family of mushrooms is highly perishable, the white ones turning yellow in just half a day after harvest.

When you cut this mushroom or its relatives, it gives off a fragrance, specific to the species. Their delicate taste has been likened to the taste of the truffles of France. No wonder they are considered a banquet delicacy by the Chinese. Cooking and presenting them to those who have never seen nor tasted them brings comments such as: "Is this dish made with lobster" and "I think I am eating eggplant, am I not?" These may have origins in their different tastes depending upon the oil or solid fat they are cooked in. Should you use those found in jars, rinse them well with warm water, and if using them dry, soak them for several hours.

This monkey head mushroom is highly valued at Chinese banquets and is considered one of the country’s finest delicacies along with bear’s paw, bird’s nest, shark’s fin, and sea cucumber. In traditional times they were rare, especially if you did not live in the northeast, where they were best known. In the province of Honan, it was known that they had a dish called Walnut Kidney. In it, the organ meat is cut walnut-sized and oil blanched before mixing with this fungus whose soft edible tendril-like fingers or teeth mix well with cross-hatched pieces of kidney. They were also used there mixed with abalone, conch, or other foods of the sea and/or mixed with figs, ginger, and many herbs.

There is a special saying about this mushroom that says: "mountain delicious the monkey head, seafood delicious the sea cucumber." Both of these foods are revered at banquets and special life-cycle occasions. They are also served for various medical conditions. According to Chinese Traditional Medicine, these mushrooms are good for your five internal organs, they promote good digestion, provide general vigor, are recommended for gastric and duodenal ulcers, and for chronic gastritis. However, for gastritis, the Chinese say to only take them in tablet form. Some current researchers are recommending this family of mushrooms for their role inhibiting cancer. Others say they extend the life of cancer patients. One Japanese study spoke of them producing an enzyme that stimulates nerve growth synthesis.

This strand or toothy looking fungus has many edible species and it is thought that its cultivation, which is rather recent, began as did most other mushrooms by keen observations of those who collected them. Used as medicine, perhaps because of their poor staying ability, these mushrooms are popularly consumed as pills, powders, and even as liquid decoctions. Dried or fresh they are popular in soups, stews, and stir-fried dishes, two of which appear below

LING ZHI, the fungus of immortality, is botanically a Ganoderma lucidum. This magical-power-fungus is thought to be a divine plant that gives longevity and immortality, wisdom as well, to all who consume it. Tales speak of its seeds feeding fairies and genies; so it is popular among many Asian cultures. It has also been associated with royalty, health, sexual prowess, even happiness, and said to be the plant that endows eaters with the power of prophesy. As such, this mushroom/fungus is used often in Chinese Traditional Medicine and has been for more than two thousand years. Regarded as a panacea, there are dozens of tales and illustrations telling or showing that it cures a myriad of diseases. There are even those that say it can cure every one of them.

Most often used dried, this mushroom can also be used fresh, but rarely is among the Chinese. When it is, they are found in teas, tinctures, syrups, soups, and in a few dinner dishes. Known as the reishi mushroom in Japan and the good fortune mushroom or saiwaitake in Japanese, this mushroom has many other names. It can be called the ten-thousand-year mushroom, the spirit plant, the phantom mushroom, and the herb of spiritual potency. It has a shiny skin and though it grows primarily on conifers, it can also be found on hardwoods including oak, maple, elm, willow, magnolia, and on several fruit trees. There are several varieties of this mushroom found in Asia, some the same as, and others different from those located in western countries. They can be cultivated and when they are, most are found on conifer and hardwood sawdust mixtures. The one found in the United States is called Ganoderma oregonese indicating one of the many places it is found or grown. Logs can be inoculated, and growing them in shaded areas is recommended.

In the wild, these mushrooms rot the roots of aging trees causing them to fall over as their preferred habitat is at the soil’s interface. They are found in many colors, their habitat and food source determining factors. Their spores usually produce just one growth though twin specimens can be found and they are of higher value to the Chinese. Fresh or cultivated, ling zhi are black, yellow, purple, and also found in the red-orange family of colors.

This mushroom is found in many Chinese artistic works. It is usually drawn with Lai Tzu or other immortals, and often that person has a scepter representing their longevity. Chinese literature has touted this mushroom for its invigorating effects, treatment and resistance to cancer, and disease recovery. Elsewhere in Asia, Indian guides in the Himalayas speak of it and use it to combat high altitude sickness. In the western world it was and is popular, and Mayan Indians--for example, used it to fight communicable diseases. Today, those with AIDS are speaking of its value for themselves and for other immuno-suppressed populations. People tout its anti-coagulating value and a Canadian company called North American Reishi touts it. They say it is among the fu zheng or superior herbs and they report it increases disease resistance and normalizes bodily functions. Their catalogue calls it the “marvelous herb” and it is widely recognized as a legendary mushroom. They go on to say there is “centuries-old usage and scientific validation” for using this mushroom.

Most research done to date has been on mice where a decoction from this mushroom is known to have sedative impact on the nervous system and some impact on immune function. Taking it prolongs sleep time, reduces salivation, inhibits some motor activities, reduces convulsions, and increases total serum cholesterol. It also has some impact on the gastrointestinal tract, perhaps due to its sedative effects. Other studies speak of its anti-inflammatory actions and its value for animals with arthritis.

Many people are awaiting results of several studies investigating these and other claims. No recipes are provided for this mushroom group as we have none and have never cooked them. We welcome your rectifying that problem by your sending us some.

OVERALL, fungi are popular worldwide. In China they may be more so as they are used when making beer, wine, liquor, and non-alcoholic beverages. They are also used when preparing well-known indigenous edibles such as soy sauce and fermented soybeans, and in the preparation of unusual ones such as Cordyceps, a fungus used to infect caterpillars. The results for both are for flavor and health. More on that in another issue, now enjoy reading and making the recipes below.
Shrimp with Straw Mushrooms
1 pound shelled and deveined shrimp
1 egg white
dash of white pepper
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
5 ounces straw mushrooms, fresh or canned, cut in halves
1 carrot, peeled and angle cut
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
5 Tablespoons corn oil
1 Tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Mix shrimp with egg white, pepper and the one tablespoon of cornstarch and set aside for fifteen minutes.
2. Blanch fresh or canned straw mushrooms and then rinse in cold water and drain well.
3. Boil carrot for half minute, drain, and set aside hot mixing them with the scallions.
4. Heat oil in a wok or pan and fry the shrimp mixture until they just start to turn pink, remove and drain, and then remove all oil from the pan but do not wash or wipe it out.
Add carrot mixture, shrimp, and rice wine and mix well. Then add cornstarch mixture and cook just until it thickens and clears, and serve immediately.
Mock Oysters
1/2 pound fresh or canned straw mushrooms
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
1/4 cup arrowroot or water chestnut flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1/2 cup corn oil
1. Blanch straw mushrooms for one minute then rinse in cold water; put them in a small pot and mix them with cornstarch, rice wine, oyster sauce and ½ cup cold water and bring to the boil, then simmer them for four or five minutes, drain and set them on paper towels to drain.
2. Mix the arrowroot powder, baking powder, and oil making a batter and toss with the straw mushrooms.
3. Heat half cup of oil and fry five or six mushrooms at a time just until the batter on them is golden. Set in a warmed plate and repeat until all are fried, then serve.
Tofu with Golden Mushrooms
1/4 pound golden mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 pound lean hand-chopped beef (or pork)
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
6 Tablespoons corn oil
1 pound firm tofu squares, cutting each into eight pieces
1/4 red pepper, seeded and cut into very thin strips
1. Blanch the golden mushrooms in boiling water with the salt added, then drain.
2. Mix pork, rice wine, cornstarch, and soy sauce and set aside for five minutes.
3. Heat oil in wok and fry tofu squares until golden, turning them over two or three times, then drain on paper towels and discard remaining oil but not wiping out the wok or fry pan.
4. Reheat the wok and fry meat until no longer pink, add the tofu squares and the golden mushrooms and stir-fry for three minutes, then add the red peppers and toss all the ingredients. Remove to a bowl or platter, and serve.
Black and Golden Mushroom Soup
3 shiitake mushrooms, soaked for five minutes, then remove and discard the stems and slice the caps thinly
4 ounces straw mushrooms, sliced thinly the long way
4 ounces golden needle mushrooms
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 cups chicken stock
1 sprig cilantro, minced
1. Mix the tree mushrooms well with the cornstarch.
2. Heat the broth then add the mushrooms and keep just below the boiling point for five minutes. Pour into four heated soup bowls, garnished each one with a little cilantro, and serve.
Stir-fried Chicken and Monkey Head Mushrooms
4 small dried monkey head mushrooms
1 whole chicken breast, cut into one- to two-inch cubes
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/2 pound any Chinese green vegetable, cleaned, cut into four-inch pieces, blanched one minute, then plunged into cold water and drained. Reserve the hot water.
2 teaspoons corn oil
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 Tablespoon Smithfield ham minced, optional
1. Soak monkey head mushrooms in warm water for half hour, rinse well, then thickly slice them. Simmer in two cups of water for half an hour, then drain.
2. Mix chicken, cornstarch, and rice wine and set aside.
3. Bring water to a boil, put greens in and let simmer for two minutes, drain and put on a warm platter.
4. Heat oil and fry the ginger for half a minute then add the chicken mixture, when no longer pink, add the mushrooms and stir-fry for three minutes, then add the ham, stir and put this mixture on the greens and serve immediately.
Wintermelon Soup
1 pound wintermelon, peeled and cut into two-inch cubes.
6 monkey head mushroomssoaked in warm water for half an hour.
6 cups chicken stock
2 ounces ground lean pork
1 egg white
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
2 Tablespoons wolfberries, optional
1. Rinse the monkey head mushrooms, then simmer then in two cups of water for half an hour. Drain and cut into half-inch cubes.
2. Put wintermelon, cooked monkey head mushrooms, and the stock into a large pot and bring it to the boil. Simmer for one hour.
3. Mix pork, egg white, and cornstarch and make this mixture into twenty small meatballs then add them to the simmering soup along with the giinger and the wolfberries. Cook an additional fifteen minutes, then serve.

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