The return of truffle season in Europe stirs up a buying frenzy every autumn, but halfway around the world the Chinese too have a long history of feasting on a prized fungi. Yunnan is China’s top mushroom-producing province, accounting for 70% of the country’s harvest. The province’s cool climate, mountainous terrain and vegetation cover provide rich ground for wild mushrooms, which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine for their high protein and low fat content, medical benefits, and aphrodisiac qualities.
Just as tasty grilled, stir-fried, stewed in soup or cooked in myriad other ways, the mushrooms’ earthy flavour and texture make them a staple in eateries, from street-side hotpot stands and vegetarian cafes to fine-dining restaurants.
Why are Yunnan mushrooms famous?
Out of three thousand varieties of edible mushroom in the world, more than eight hundred types grow in abundance in Yunnan, including several premium varieties highly sought after by chefs around the world.
Morel mushrooms, a staple in classic French cuisine and known for their intense flavour and sponge-like texture, appear in the rainy months of April to late May and August to September, while porcini, the best known mushroom in Western cuisine, sprout in three varieties, white, black and yellow, between May and October. The Chinese sometimes refer to this harvest as “delicious beef liver” (美味牛肝).
Matsutake mushrooms are frequent sightings in the higher altitude forests in the Shangri-La region near Lijiang, and they are widely favoured by Japanese chefs and gourmands. A third of Japan’s annual consumption of matsutake is from Yunnan, and can fetch up to $560 per kilogramme.
Yunnan truffles have also caught the attention of the Western culinary world. They can cost just a tenth of the price of their European and Australian counterparts, and are usually lighter in flavour and aroma.
Beyond the popular varieties, Yunnan is home to rare mushrooms found only in the region, such as the cauliflower mushrooms that grow in the pine forests in June and July. Thin-stemmed “chicken leg” mushrooms are another unusual crop; termite mushrooms grow on ant mounds; and bamboo pith mushrooms are distinguished by the delicate sponge skirts that encircle them.
Where to taste them?
For the fearless home cook, Mushuihua Market in the provincial capital of Kunming is the biggest wild mushroom market in Yunnan, and the best place to stock your pantry.
Otherwise, small restaurants crop up during mushroom season along Guan Xing Road, the city’s main mushroom hotpot district, offering a variety of broths made with secret recipes.
Among the group, Lao Zi Hao Wild Mushroom Restaurant (99-101 Guanxing Lu, Kunming; Tel: +86 871-3550899) is a popular venue. Patrons select the mushrooms they want out of glass chillers, and are charged according to the variety, weight and rarity of their selection.
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