They are wrinkled, sometimes slightly slimy, and it is hard to imagine them on the dinner table. This is the black jelly fungus, beloved all over China and an essential Chinese culinary basic.
In the West it is known as wood ear, jelly ear, or by its long scientific description of Auricularia auricular-judae, a name derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree, from which these ear-shaped fungi sprouted.
The Chinese generally have no hang-ups about Judas, and the black wood-ear fungus is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups and, in the northern regions, in cold-tossed dishes.
It is mostly a texture food, appreciated for its tactile crunch and crispness. Its flavor, slightly musky, is often masked by the other ingredients it is cooked with.
For the Chinese, heimu’er is also valued for its curative properties, and it is cooked in soups to cut cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar and control hypertension.
The fungus is most commonly sold dried, hardened into scrunched up morsels which are then soaked and rehydrated before cooking. Fresh wood ears are now available in markets in the south but are definitely less popular due to their slimy jellylike feel.
There are several varieties, with colors ranging from a pale chocolate to deep black, and sizes vary as well.
Large wood-ear mushrooms, white and furry on the underside, are more valued for their medicinal properties. They are simply boiled and drunk as an infusion or slow-cooked in soups. Furry wood ears are slightly leathery and not as tasty as their smaller cousins.
The more petite species is smooth and dark on both sides, and once rehydrated, it resumes its bright glossiness and an attractive translucency. They are slightly sweet, smooth and crunchy.
Nutrition-wise, black jelly fungus is rich in protein, with traces of potassium and selenium, and just a little fat.
In traditional Chinese medicine, heimu’er promotes healthy bowels, clears the lungs and is used as an anti-coagulant. For that reason, its popularity in the large cities, especially, has grown in tandem with the number of smoggy days.
The best black wood ears in China are produced in the relatively remote northeastern province of Heilongjiang, along the Xiaoxing’an Ridge. Here, cool wooded areas provide the jelly fungus with clean air, unpolluted water and ideal growing conditions.
In the past, wood-ear growing was mostly a cottage industry, but it has seen a production surge in recent years.
Black wood ear from Heilongjiang is dried, tightly compressed and then vacuum-packed into compact little boxes. Online shopping and convenient courier services have made these once inaccessible points of sale popular.
Still, domestic consumption is so high that demand far exceeds supply and China imports dried wood ears mainly from Australia, with some from Vietnam and Malaysia.
The larger, leathery fungus is produced locally in warmer coastal areas in East China’s Fujian province, South China’s Guangdong province and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and Yunnan province in the southwest.
The most interesting question is: How do Chinese cooks prepare this strange ingredient? Let’s walk our way through the culinary map.
On the island of Hainan, the famous East Mountain goat meat is cooked in a herbal stew that features the black wood ear. The mutton is braised in clay pots with dried bean curd sticks, various Chinese herbs such as astralagus, angelica root and licorice bark, and plenty of black wood ear.
During the long cooking process, the fungus soaks up the meaty flavors and becomes delicious, and through some culinary alchemy it also takes away the pungency of the goat.
Across on the mainland, the Cantonese in Guangdong and Guangxi love using the wood ear in stir-fries that feature meat or are vegetarian.
On Buddhist festivals, temple cooks use wood ear and other mushrooms to create flavor contrasts in the famous Luohan Zhai, a very colorful dish of braised mixed vegetables. The wood ear is used for its brightness and its crunch.
The Cantonese also like the wood ear in their favorite steamed dishes. A classic example is chicken with black wood ears, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper, which allows the jelly fungus to soak up the chicken flavors while the dish steams.
Farther inland, in Sichuan, heimu’er is a crucial ingredient in the signature hot and sour soup, suanla tang. Again, the wood ear stands out from among the bamboo shoots, tofu and shredded pork with its well-defined crunch.
Throughout China, black wood ears are an accent in stir-fries, but it is in the cold-tossed salads of the north that they take on a leading role.
Whole fungi are rehydrated and blanched before being tossed in a vinegar dressing. This is an important, visually appealing appetizer that is almost always served before a major meal, both at home and in restaurants.