Peculiar powers of the forest fungus
by Zoe Li; photos by Luna Zhang
If trees had ears, would you eat them? According to Chinese medicine, you’d be silly if you didn’t.
The Chinese fungi muer, which translates literally as "wood ear," is also known as tremella, or witch’s butter, by Western health food stores. It is commonly found in Beijing either as the black hei muer (黑木耳, "black wood ear") or the white yiner (银耳, "silver ear"). These are the yin and yang of fungi; the fungal king and queen; the Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li of eukaryotic organisms. One is black like a gracefully wilting rose, while the other resembles an elegant albino peony in full bloom, and both are believed to contain many wonderful nutritional benefits.
In particular, the silver fungi is best for those with Snow White aspirations, not because of any soporific properties but because the slippery, translucent appearance of cooked silver ear is the exaggerated ideal of fair skin. According to the tenet of Chinese shiliao (食疗, the practice of healing through eating), eating foods that resemble certain parts of the body will improve those parts. The brain-like appearance of walnuts means it must be good for the brain, as silken silver ear is for the skin. It’s easy to dismiss the hokey-ness of this, but poke your head into any home-style restaurant in town and don’t be surprised to find at least a couple of radiant, supple-skinned ladies slurping up silver ear soup religiously.
Both types of fungi are also believed to be good for the respiratory system, the heart and the stomach, and are thought to be blood thinners, thus preventing clots. As autumn draws near, many soups will be prepared with the fungi to help combat the coming of cold, dry weather.
To pick out a good quality muer, you should check the color, thickness, moisture and smell of the fungi. Top-quality fresh black muer should be a rich inky black color, and its large palm-sized ears should be quite thick and not too rubbery. It should have a low amount of moisture and be torn apart easily like a plant leaf. There should be no unpleasant smells to the fungi but maybe just a slight woodsy, soil-like pungency when held close to the nose.
Silver ear should be a natural-looking blond color. If it is too yellow then it will be bitter, and if it is too pale, it may have been chemically bleached. Go for the ones with thick, large folds, with no dirt particles on them. Both types of dried fungi should swell up to five times their size when reconstituted in water.
Black muer can be whipped into a Chinese salad simply by reconstituting it in drinking water, slicing it into bite sized pieces and letting it sit in a dressing of sugar, soy sauce, black vinegar and maybe a few Sichuan peppercorns. It can also be added into a meat stir-fry or stew. Cooking it for longer than 30 minutes will transform it from crunchy to melt-in-the-mouth, both desirable textures, depending on your own tastes.
Silver ear, on the other hand, is best when it is past the melt-in-the-mouth stage and nearer to the disappearing-into-the-liquid-completely stage. It imparts a viscosity to the soup or stew as if starch had been added, and it is believed that the nutrients are best absorbed this way.
Silver ear dessert soup
For the complexion
- 1 medium-sized bouquet of silver ear, about 5 inches in diameter when dry
- 3 cups of water for boiling
- Handful of small dried jujubes
- Small bunch of wolfberries
- 2 thumb-sized pieces of rock sugar (冰糖, bingtang)
Soak the dried jujubes and wolfberries for about 15 minutes to soften them slightly and remove any dirt. Drain the water and reserve the fruits.
Soak the dry silver ear in cold water for ten minutes, washing out any dirt particles. Change the water and continue to soak for another 15 minutes or until it is completely moist and has expanded in size. While soaking, continue to add water to the silver ear so that it is always sitting in a shallow pool.
Shake off the excess water and cut the silver ear into bite-sized pieces, removing the bitter amber roots completely.
Place the silver ear in a large pot with the jujubes, wolfberries and water. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and leave the soup to simmer very slowly. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the silver ear is not sticking to the bottom. Add hot water if it starts to stick. When the silver ear has turned completely translucent, it is ready to eat. The longer you simmer, the thicker the soup, and cooking time can continue until the soup has achieved your desired consistency.
Before serving, add the sugar to taste. The soup is good either hot or ice-cold.