By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A funny thing happened to me recently—the unexpected arrival of a gigantic mushroom.
Just one problem, I didn’t know what to do with it. Should I eat it? Should I save it as the darn fungi looks so beautiful. I don’t mean to stereotype, like many Chinese, my mother would say, “Save it!? Are you crazy? Don’t waste good stuff.” Meaning if it nourishes our body, then eating it is a blessing. No what ifs or buts…
Generation changes through mushrooms
Mushrooms are an essential part of Asian cuisine. I was raised in a “mushroom” family. My mom, aunt, and grandma (all lived together) would cook everything with Chinese mushrooms. From stews to soups, stir-fried to steamed dishes, mushrooms are key ingredients. Symbolizing longevity, mushrooms are a crucial ingredient during Lunar New Year. After reading about their health benefits (on the right), you will understand why Asians believe they are magical in prolonging life and bringing dead people to life, as told in many ancient Asian tales and legends.
The old way of cooking Chinese and Japanese mushrooms is labor-intensive because they are dried. You soak them in water first for an hour or more, so they can resume their original fullness.
If you want to speed up the process, soak them in hot water. It will expand to its full shape in a half hour so you can chop it into pieces for cooking.
In retrospect, I am amazed at how much work my family put in every mushroom dish at home. Had I known, I would have appreciated the dishes so much more then.
Times have changed. When I was growing up, Japanese and Chinese dried mushrooms were expensive. Now, prices are reasonable. I haven’t bought those Chinese or Japanese dried mushrooms for years. I only eat them in Asian restaurants. I prefer fresh mushrooms with both Western and Eastern origins.
The benefits of eating mushrooms
Mushrooms are not considered plants, but a part of the fungi family. There are more than 10,000 species. The common kinds you find in grocery stores are enoki, shiitake, portobello, white button, king, oyster, and others.
Why Asian often use mushrooms as the main or side ingredients in cuisines is because they are delicious, and serve as flavor-enhancers, especially in vegetarian dishes. Whenever I don’t have time to make a full soup, I put mushrooms in a bone or chicken broth. Instantly, a rich and superb bowl of mushroom soup emerges.
A friend of my mother’s indulged herself in all kinds of unhealthy eating and drinking. She had high blood pressure. To fool her doctor, she would cleanse her body by eating plenty of mushrooms the week before her annual physical check-up. Then, her health report would come back normal.
Mushrooms are antioxidants that lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. They also fight cancer cells and infections, boost your immunity, cleanse plaques in your arteries, plus many other functions. It is also gluten-free and fights bacteria and infection.
Of course, there are mushroom supplements (like reshi or lingzhi), known for their medicinal value. My friend sent me a gift of lingzhi pills. We did not know there was a surprise inside the package. It was a big mushroom, a bonus gift to celebrate Hsu Ginseng’s anniversary. These supplements are great for overall health benefits. Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese believe these mushrooms can prolong life. The reason I take them is because they contain melatonin, which aids sleep. However, don’t expect miracles if you have suffered from insomnia for a while. It takes months before you notice its effect. Reishi pills focus on nursing the body back to health.
One advice I received from a medical doctor—never eat mushrooms raw. I wouldn’t put them in salads. I make sure they are cooked well. Not to worry, overcooked mushrooms still taste quite palatable. They don’t get tough or lose their taste even in hot temperatures. You don’t need to be an excellent chef to make mushrooms taste amazing.
Recently, my daughter-in-law cooked us a yummy mushroom dish. (See recipe on the right). You can sautée it with butter or stir-fry with garlic, ginger, and scallions. I usually stir-fry them with vegetables or meat. With vegetables, I add broth after I cook them, so I can have soup, too.
A misconception about cooking mushrooms is that they should taste salty and not sweet. But years ago, I had enjoyed the best mushroom dessert soup in my life at the original Chinese vegetarian restaurant on Queen Anne. The owner, Mr. Young, cooked enoki with ground sweet almonds. The dish was called enoki almond tea. It was just wonderful. No one in Seattle can make the same dish. Just sad.
Picking wild mushrooms
Wild mushrooms grow all over the Seattle area. I have seen them along the water on Lake Washington Boulevard. But please don’t pick them as many could be poisonous.
It reminded me of our late community leaders, Ben and Ruth Woo. They loved to embark on hikes for wild mushrooms. They were experts who knew what was edible and not. For folks who go on these mushroom adventures, they love the excitement of finding mushrooms with diverse species, with all kinds of shapes and heights, some as tall and as big as trees. One gigantic mushroom, estimated to be around 8,650 years old, was found in Malheur National Forest in Oregon.
For safety’s sake, you can admire them, and take photos of these funny-looking organisms. But don’t touch them. I made the mistake of touching them when I first came to the United States for college in Portland, Oregon. Imagine a country girl seeing the city for the first time. For me, it was the opposite, a city girl from Hong Kong, seeing the wilderness for the first time at the back of the campus on a spring day. I was so thrilled and happy to see the beauty of nature that I danced, slept on the grass, and picked wild flowers and mushrooms, not realizing that some of them were toxic. My fingers swelled quickly. I ended up going to the doctor and getting three stitches on my finger. My aunt told me that my mom cried after reading my letter sharing my demise in America.
It was scary at the time, but it was also my first exploration of the wilderness in the U.S.—-a portrait of innocence and joy of freedom, attracted by those peculiar fungi smiling at me unconditionally.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.
Tracy Luu’s baked mushrooms
Clean and cut the mushrooms.
Air dry them overnight. Put a piece of paper towel under the fungi, but don’t cover them.
Mix and toss the mushrooms with garlic, shallots, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the quantity, until they are cooked. Make sure you don’t burn them.