Many ways to cook and enjoy fresh mushrooms

The mushroom season has finally arrived. Freshly picked wild mushrooms, such as boletus, matsutakes and Collybia albuminosa, are at their best throughout the rest of the summer.

The much-anticipated mushroom season has finally arrived. Freshly picked wild mushrooms, such as boletus, matsutakes and Collybia albuminosa, are at their best throughout the rest of the summer.

The majority of wild mushrooms come from the remote mountain forests of Yunnan Province in southwest China during the rainy season. You can find more than 250 species of edible fungi in Yunnan, about two-thirds of the total in China and half of the world’s.

People in Yunnan eat a lot of mushrooms, not even leaving out some of the slightly poisonous species like jianshouqing (Suillellus luridus) that can cause hallucinations and gastrointestinal poisoning if consumed raw or undercooked. They even joke about seeing small people in their heads after eating the wild mushrooms. For the locals, not eating mushrooms in the summer is living in vain for the entire year, and the delicacy is worth the risk.

Today, you don’t have to travel to Yunnan to enjoy precious mushroom delicacies. Modern airfreight has enabled fresh batches of wild mushrooms to arrive in big cities like Shanghai every day.

In addition to sampling the seasonal mushroom menus in restaurants, supermarkets and online grocery services are also selling unique fresh and wild mushrooms that cannot be found at other times.

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Now is the best time to enjoy fresh wild Yunnan mushrooms.

The season’s best

The mushrooms started to enter the markets in Yunnan in May, and the months of July, August and September are the peak time to enjoy the best mushrooms. The amount of both wild and artificially cultivated mushrooms harvested in Yunnan this season is enormous.

The king of mushrooms today is no doubt the songrong, or matsutake mushroom. With a distinct aroma and flavor, songrong is a true celebration of the mushroom season.

It takes five to six years for songrong to grow, and their requirement from the environment is very specific and demanding. The mushrooms can only be picked from the wild, and they are quite hard to find in the forest. Artificial cultivation of the species has not met with success.

But a few decades ago, songrong didn’t even have a proper name. It was ignored by mushroom pickers, who called it stinky Collybia albuminosa and didn’t bother to pick up these mushrooms from the soil.

A lot of Chinese people learned about songrong through the 2012 food documentary “A Bite of China.” It was featured in the first episode through a very ceremonial narration that traced how songrong made its way from the remote mountains to the dinner table. The documentary sparked a songrong craze in China.

The price of songrong varies according to size. The bigger ones, with a length over 10 centimeters are three times more expensive than smaller ones of 5 centimeters. August is the best time to enjoy songrong because the price is at the lowest.

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The king of mushrooms today is no doubt the songrong, or matsutake mushroom.

Songrong is considered very nutritious with lots of health benefits. They are rich in protein, amino acids, unsaturated fatty acid and minerals. The fresh mushrooms can be cooked and eaten in many ways.

Sauteing fresh slices of songrong in butter is a simple recipe to highlight the mushroom’s unique fragrance. It can also be stewed with chicken or pork ribs to make delicious soups. Not much seasoning is needed as there’s the natural umami flavor from the mushroom.

Songrong rice is also a crowd favorite because the rice can infuse all the aromas of the mushroom in steaming.

Some people like to enjoy the original flavor of songrong so much that they don’t cook the mushroom at all, instead, serving it sashimi style with light soy sauce.

Although it’s not a difficult ingredient to cook with, cleaning songrong is tricky, as you cannot soak them in water to remove the dirt. Instead, scrape off the soil with a small knife and brush off the excess dirt.

Shangri-La City in northwestern Yunnan produces the highest amount of songrong, making up about 40 percent of the nation’s total.

In Japan, the matsutake mushroom has long been regarded as a precious gem and is traditionally consumed in autumn to nourish the body. Domestic production has been in decline over the past 50 years. Every year, China exports a large quantity of matsutake mushrooms to Japan and Europe.

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Songrong and chicken soup.

Another mushroom you cannot miss out during the season is the Collybia albuminosa mushroom, or jizongjun in Chinese. This sweet, delicious fungus is regarded the queen of mushrooms and it’s also the most representative species of Yunnan mushrooms.

The Collybia albuminosa cohabits with termites in the forests, both gaining nutrition from one another and the termites also helping the fungi spread.

Jizongjun is a very meaty and succulent mushroom that works really well in soups. It’s often paired with chicken and pork rib.

Fresh jizongjun is extremely difficult to store and transport. It freezes up at 6 degrees Celsius and can easily go bad when exposed to air for longer time.

Jizongjun oil is one way to preserve the delicious mushroom. It’s made by frying the jizongjun in oil with seasonings and then storing in sealed jars. Adding a little bit of the oil into a noodle dish is very delicious.

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Braised jizongjun.

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Jizongjun oil is a traditional way of preserving the fleeting delicacy.

Morels are one of the scarcer mushrooms worldwide known for their earthy and nutty flavor, and they are especially prized in French cooking. A simple way to enjoy morels is sauteing in butter and seasoning with salt and pepper. In Chinese cuisine, morels are often stewed in soups to release all the flavors.

There are more than 20 species of morels found in China. The price of fresh morels now in season is about 50 yuan (US$7.6) per 100 grams. Morels can be stored dry and reconstitute in warm water before cooking.

The different kinds of bolete mushrooms are also a highlight of the mushroom season. In Chinese cooking, bolete are usually stir-fried with chili pepper, steamed with rice and sausage or stewed with meat in soups.

Jianshouqing comes from the bolete family. The name means turning blue when handled because the cap can have a blue discoloration when encountering the skin. Even though it’s not the safest mushroom to eat, it’s very popular in Yunnan. The mushroom must be thoroughly cooked in oil with lots of garlic to eliminate the toxins.

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Jianshouqing mushroom turns blue when handled.

Fresh, wild mushrooms are not cheap because they involves tremendous manpower to pick the mushrooms by hand as well as significant cost of logistics. Yunnan mushrooms must make their way to the dinner table within 48 hours to ensure freshness. Stale mushrooms cannot be eaten.

The price of artificially cultivated and wild mushrooms varies greatly. On the same retail platform, handpicked wild jizongjun can cost 200 yuan for just 150 grams, while the cultivated black jizongjun are roughly 40 yuan for 240 grams.

Wild mushrooms are highly sought-after in this fleeting season of fungus. The flavor of the wild ones is more intense than cultivated, and many are willing to splurge for the best of the best.

The everyday mushrooms 

Mushrooms play an important role in Chinese cooking. Modern mushroom farming has enabled stable production of over a dozen kinds of mushrooms throughout the year, and they are an essential ingredient people use every day.

Shitake mushrooms are among the most widely used fungi in Chinese cuisine, with both dried and fresh shitake mushrooms incorporated in various stir-fries, soups and stews. The shitake mushroom has a distinct aroma that some people do not find appealing, but for those who love it, it’s a rich, meaty, cheap and easy-to-cook ingredient that can make dishes shine.

Wild shitake mushrooms are generally smaller in size and more vibrant in color. The flavor is much more intense than in cultivated mushrooms.

The abalone mushroom is an extra meaty species with light flavors. This thick and rounded mushroom can be blanched in hot water and chilled in ice water to make an easy, delicious salad with a dressing of soy sauce, vinegar, salt and cilantro. Abalone mushrooms are also suitable for stews, soups and stir-fries.

Bamboo fungus, or zhusun, is a popular edible mushroom praised for its elegant flavor and crunchy texture. It can be used in all kinds of dishes because of the sponge-like texture allows the mushroom to soak up all the flavors from other ingredients, and without a dominant flavor like shitake or songrong, the bamboo fungus performs really well in light soups. Bamboo fungus stuffed with shrimp paste is a popular hotpot dish.

The bamboo fungus is normally sold as a dried product, but you can also find the fresh ones in supermarkets at a higher cost.

These are easier to cook without the step of soaking and the flavor is fresher and more delicate.

Other common mushrooms you can find in supermarkets every day include white and brown beech, oyster and tea tree (Cyclocybe aegerita) mushrooms.

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Mushrooms are widely used in Chinese cooking.

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