Sat, Aug 08, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Delicious fungus

The king oyster mushroom doesn’t promise much from its appearance on the store shelf, but treated right it releases a beautiful depth of flavor

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

King oyster mushrooms with balsamic and rosemary served with roast loin roll with black and green olives and a salsa of pickled roasted sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

In Asia, the world of edible mushrooms is very different from that of Europe, and the familiar reference points of the button and portobello mushrooms, or the more exotic cepes and morels of French cuisine, are replaced by the shitake (the basic Chinese culinary mushroom, used both fresh and dried), the ubiquitous enoki (a hot pot staple) and the shimeji (a Japanese import that is now being grown locally).

Another popular favorite is the king oyster mushroom, which I was introduced to as part of the line up at stalls selling grilled food on sticks at the local night market. The fact that it was usually coated in some sort of sweet, salty, sticky and generally overpowering grilling sauce, meant that what little flavor it had was well and truly hidden. They can also be rather chewy if not properly cooked, which was often the case as busy stall owners moved their skewers off the grill too quickly for the heat to fully penetrate the dense flesh of this mushroom.

It was not a promising introduction, but time and experience in the kitchen have taught me that the king oyster mushroom (also known as the king trumpet mushroom, French horn mushroom, trumpet royale, or more technically, Pleurotus eryngii) has plenty to recommend it beyond being a vehicle for cheap, artificially flavored BBQ sauce.

The Chinese name for this mushroom is the “apricot abalone mushroom” (杏鮑菇). It is widely available in its mature form, huge stumps with a small beige-colored cap. Recently a less mature version, with smaller stems, has become increasingly available on the market, and these have led to my own renewed interest in the king oyster, as this smaller version can be served whole and is less dense and chewy than its grown up cousins, though both are delicious with the right preparation.

King oysters don’t look particularly appetizing, but the big ones can be sliced, with a disk of the mushroom resembling a scallop. The texture of these big mushrooms, according to some, is similar to abalone, and one food producer (www.wineforest.com) claims that they have been mistaken for seafood by vegetarian customers, who have sent a dish of sliced king oyster mushrooms back to the kitchen, having mistaken it for a dish of scallops.

The king oyster doesn’t have much fragrance when raw, but when cooked they release luscious umami, or savory, flavors that really enhance the food they are served with. A couple of stems thrown in as part of a vegetable stock make a huge difference to the overall oomph of the end product.

In Taiwanese cuisine, king oyster mushrooms are often stir-fried, with deep fried and grilled versions mostly restricted to street food. They are sometimes used as a substitute for meat, and in this role they can be very tasty. My own favorite is as the main ingredient of “three-cups king oyster mushroom” (三杯杏鮑菇), in which the mushroom provides a bulk and umami elements for the rich sauce made of equal parts of rice wine, sesame oil, and soy, flavored with ginger, garlic and basil leaves.

The health benefits of eating mushrooms are widely acknowledged, as they are rich in B vitamins such as riboflavin, folate, thiamine, pantothenic acid, and niacin. They have strong antioxidant properties, are excellent for helping strengthen the immune system and fight chronic disease. As they are low in sodium, fat, cholesterol, and calories, they are also perfect as a diet food. For vegans, they are the only non-fortified dietary source of vitamin D and provide several minerals that may be difficult to obtain otherwise, such as selenium, potassium, copper, iron, and phosphorus.

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