Sat, Apr 14, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Monkeying around with mushrooms

An unusual mushroom that makes a convenient addition to the pantry and is an excellent meat-substitute

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

A quick mushroom braise provides a great meaty meal without any cadaverous guilt.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Mushrooms are a highly prized part of many culinary traditions due to the amazing fragrance they can impart to food, and in the Chinese tradition none has a higher place than the monkey head mushroom (猴頭菇), which is regarded as one of the four great delicacies of Chinese cuisine, along with other exotica such as bird’s nest, shark’s fin and bear’s paw.

These dishes have largely fallen out of the mainstream, and as they clearly derive their cachet from their rarity and the damaging impact on their victims, this is for the best. Fortunately monkey head mushrooms have nothing to do with monkeys and are not in any immediate danger of extinction. Harvesting, as far as I can tell, is not the cause of undue cruelty. So if you want to enjoy an ancient Chinese delicacy, the monkey head mushroom seems to be a good choice.

The monkey head mushroom is also called the lion’s mane mushroom or the bearded tooth mushroom (it is a member of the tooth fungus group), and is sometimes known by its Japanese name of yamabushitake, or goes by such sobriquets as pom-pom mushroom or bearded hedgehog mushroom.

Monkey head is an unlikely choice for a culinary delicacy. It is a bulbous, sometimes furry looking growth that attaches itself to hardwood. It’s color ranges from white through to a dirty blond. It is generally sold dried and in this form looks like a small bath sponge or loofah. Fresh monkey head mushrooms are available, but they are the exception.

The loofah-like mushrooms are not particularly approachable as a culinary ingredient but despite appearances, their aroma is highly prized, as are their numerous medicinal properties. Once you know what to do with them, monkey head mushrooms are in fact remarkably versatile and serve as an easy standby in the pantry.

In some preparations they have a remarkably meaty texture and often serve as a meat-substitute in Chinese vegetarian cuisine. While not being a vegetarian, I have no objection to vegetarian food but have often balked at the use of processed gluten products in Chinese vegetarian cuisine, which seems to me both hypocritical and unhealthy.

Anyway, ingredients such as monkey head mushrooms, which depending on preparation can make a good stab at reproducing the textural qualities of red meat or even fish and seafood (some imaginative suspension of disbelief is required for this trick to work, but the fibrous structure of the mushroom does provide the requisite chewiness). There are even recipes for monkey head mushroom steaks out there on the Internet.

Monkey head mushrooms do require a degree of preparatory work, as befits their status as a delicacy. Unlike most mushrooms used in western cuisine, the monkey head mushroom is not afraid of getting wet, and in fact requires extensive soaking prior to cooking. The method and time required for soaking varies widely depending on whom you consult, but the key point seems to alternately soak and squeeze the mushroom until it only excretes clear water.

To achieve this, some recommend breaking up the mushroom and placing it in a pot of water, bringing this to a boil then discarding the water. This can be done once or twice. Simply soaking the mushroom in cold water is also a popular recommendation and my own favored method.

Place the mushroom in a bowl of water, and if the weather is warm, it is probably best to put it in the fridge. Soak it for about two hours then squeeze out the water as you would from a sponge. The center of the mushroom may still be rather firm after the first soaking, but will gradually soften. Add more water and repeat four or five times.

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