Among China's culinary treasures of the forest, the mushroom is king and its popularity increases as people seek its nutritional benefits and varied tastes, from robust and earthy to delicate and subtle.
Shan zhen hai wei (山珍海味), or literally "mountain precious and ocean taste," is the Chinese superlative describing a great meal of the tastiest and most delicate dishes prepared with the rarest ingredients.
Shan zhen, the first half of the phrase, refers to precious foods from the mountains, where space, fresh air, mineral-rich soil and pure river water produce wild animals, vegetables and herbs with firm texture and savory taste.
In the old times, the term included rare animals such as wild bear, deer or Chinese forest frogs. Now, due to animal protection laws, shan zhen commonly refers to all kinds of fungus (all mushrooms are fungus, not all fungi are mushrooms) grown in mountain areas.
China has more than 900 varieties of edible mushrooms (mogu 蘑菇), which are gaining even more popularity, due to the increasing concerns for food safety and health.
"My mom has definitely been buying more mushrooms in past two years, after my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She cooks mushrooms with all kinds of meat to reduce the meat portion," says Jeremy Jiang, one of many Chinese who have been eating more mushrooms.
At the doctor's suggestion, she also adds wood ear fungus (mu'er 木耳) into whatever soup she cooks everyday and finds it actually goes with any soup.
Edible mushrooms, especially wild ones from the mountains, have always been popular on Chinese dinner tables and are significant ingredients in traditional Chinese medical recipes. Written records of cooking and healing with mushrooms date back more than 2,000 years. Non-mushroom fungi were also known to cooks and healers long ago.
Modern scientific research has found that various kinds of mushrooms contain certain active compounds and antioxidants that fight inflammation and also may help in prevention and treatment of cancers, among other ailments.
"Chinese families are eating more mushrooms because they are high in protein and low in fat or cholesterol. They are easy to prepare and cook. Those grown in deep mountain areas also contain a variety of beneficial micro-elements, which are difficult to get from daily meals alone," Fu Kang, a Shanghai-based nutritionist, tells Shanghai Daily.
In addition to its nutritional and medical benefits, mushrooms are also known for their distinctive fragrance and a variety of tastes that have been described as woodsy, earthy, smoky, brothy and even delicate, a bit sweet, meaty or oyster-like (oyster mushrooms). Texture can be meaty, chewy, velvety, even nutty. Fragrance, taste and texture come together and create a pleasant, and long-lasting after-taste.
The savory taste and aroma intensify the flavor and taste of ingredients that are cooked with mushrooms, making them a favorite side-dish of chefs around the world.
In China, common dishes include mushrooms stir-fried with pork, mushroom chicken soup, mushroom stir-fried with chicken slices, mushrooms stir-fried with leafy vegetables, among others.
Rare and costly
Many diners also appreciate dishes made with mushrooms only, such as a stir-fry of a mix of different mushrooms, in order to appreciate the simple, delicate taste. Some mushrooms can also be roasted.
For those who want to appreciate the pure umami of mushrooms, the Mushroom Hotpot Cuisine on Caobao Road in Minhang District is one of very few venues where a platter of wild mushrooms is provided for hot pot.
The mushroom-rich menu includes rare and costly types, such as matsutake and the cockscomb mushroom, in addition to more common and less expensive ones such as oyster mushroom.