When I was home one year during the winter solstice celebration, my father introduced me to Bamboo Mushrooms. A succulent, pleasantly spongy and tender mushroom that resembles baby fish nets. Besides a faint aroma of dried out haystack mixed with a slightly acidic taste to the tongue (when re-hydrated), these mushrooms are virtually tasteless. But, do not let their modesty fool you as they carry active polysaccharides, natural enzymes and antimicrobial properties … not to mention they’re rich in protein, iron, manganese and zinc. In culinary application, they are priced for their neutrality as they soak up intended flavors without corrupting a dish. For that, they are used in a wide spectrum of compositions: from lacing chicken consommé to adding texture to a spicy black bean pork belly stew to gluten-free stir fries to a variety of chilled salads. When I returned to the Bay Area, I found them available in New May Wah on Clement St. SF and all the Ranch99 stores.
Now, let’s dig through the Neolithic era and find out how this wonder found its way to our table. First, the bamboos: bamboos are monocots that only produce flowers in 65 – 120 year cycles through a process known as mass flowering. Every time this mysterious phenomena occurs, a cessation of new vegetative growth takes place as a result of energy diversion into producing flowers. Consequently, they stop producing new shoots and eventually rot – creating a desirable environment for the growth of bamboo mushrooms. Note: Bamboo shoots account for 80% of adult pandas daily intake of food, and are often associated with sharp drops in the panda population as cessation of bamboo shoots growth have caused shortages in the panda’s diet (ya, they really like their bamboo shoots and need to eat half of their body weight worth of them…daily!). In the past decade or so, the situation has improved thanks to the global efforts and measures undertaken by wildlife preservation agencies.
Second, Bamboo Mushrooms ~ also known as Veiled Angels, Bamboo Pith (not to be thought of as part of bamboos as bamboos are naturally hollow) or Bamboo Fungus. Unlike many mushrooms spores which are spread by the wind, the spores of bamboo mushrooms are spread by insects. They achieve this by strategically placing their spores on the caps followed by a secretion of sticky and stinky mucus to hold them in place. As insects attracted to this protein-packed substance land to consume it, they carry the spores with them when airborne. This unusual mechanism (in the mushroom world) enables the spores to travel a greater distance as the wet rotten bamboo forest limits the necessary air flow that would allow the spores to move without the help of insects. When brought to an optimum growing environment, the spores then derive nutrients from substrates of rotten leaves and trunks.
Historically, these mushroom were found growing in Fujian, Sichuan, Hubei and Yunnan provinces in Mainland China. Modern day human-constructed-environments have proved to be successful in cultivating similar crops around the world.
Here’s a recipe you will want to give a try, especially if you have never had a Bamboo mushroom before.
Spicy Chicken Broth with Lemongrass and Bamboo Mushrooms:
- ¼ Cup vegetable oil
- 4-5 cloves garlic (peeled and smashed)
- 1 Bird’s Eye chili (split lengthwise)
- 2 thumbs of lemongrass (smashed, removed when ready to serve)
- 2 large carrots (peeled and cut into large dices)
- 1 large yellow onion (peeled and cut into large dices)
- 1 fresh lime (zest and juice only)
- 2-Lb skinless chicken thighs
- 1-Lb chicken neck bones (trimmed off fat)
- 1 Gallon cold water
- 1 Cup coconut milk
- 3-4 oz bamboo mushrooms (dry weight, rinse thoroughly and drained well)
- ¼ Cup slurry (made from warm water and 3-4 tbsp. corn or potato starch)
- salt and pepper, to taste
- fresh cucumbers (skinned and julienne, for garnish)
- In a stock pot over high heat, add vegetable oil.
- Saute garlic, chili, lemongrass, carrots and onions until fragrant.
- Add lime zest and juice, chicken thighs and bones.
- Continue stirring until thighs are cooked on surface.
- Add cold water and bring to simmering boil.
- Lower heat and let simmer.
- When chicken starts to fall off their bones, add coconut milk and mushrooms.
- Thicken with slurry and continue to cook for 10 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Ladle into serving bowl and garnish with cucumber julienne.