Jan. 5th, 2012

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
Description follows.

[Image: Dried shiitake piled up in a heap. The dark brown tops of the mushrooms bear a characteristic cracked pattern, though some also appear to have been cut and scored to accentuate the natural cracks.]

It's 2012 already! How did that happen? And it's Lunar New Year soon as well!

I've decided that January on this blog is going to be a themed month — not themed around a type of food, like the dim sum months I have each August, but themed around a type of post. Each week in January I'll cover a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

Since today marks the end of the 22nd solar term, 冬至 (dōng zhì/winter solstice), I thought it appropriate to choose an ingredient that includes the character 冬 (dōng/winter) in one of its names: shiitake[see footnote]. These mushrooms are used both fresh and dried, and come in different grades of quality (and cost).

Shiitake go by several names in Chinese, including 香菇 (xiāng gū/"fragrant mushrooms"), 冬菇 (dōng gū/"winter mushrooms"), 北菇 (běi gū/"northern mushrooms"), and 花菇 (huā gū/"flower mushrooms"). In English, they may be called "shiitake", "shiitake mushrooms", "Chinese mushrooms", or "Chinese black mushrooms". The ones pictured above were labelled 精品白花菇 (jīng pǐn bái huā gū) in Chinese and "super white flower mushroom" in English. (精品 means "good quality" and 白 means "white".)

I'm not entirely sure of the nuances/differences between the different Chinese names. I think 花菇 (huā gū/flower mushroom) is reserved for the higher grades of dried shiitake, as the crackled pattern that naturally forms on top of these is reminiscent of a flower. However, it's worth noting Carolyn J Phillips' warning that this pattern can also be created by cutting inferior-grade mushrooms with a razor blade! I've also formed the impression from Google searches that 北菇 (běi gū/northern mushroom) is only ever used for dried shiitake, never fresh, though I could be wrong in this hypothesis.

Dried and fresh shiitake differ in terms of flavour and texture, and tend to be used in different ways. I personally consider the dried ones to be generally much more useful than their fresh counterparts; the drying process concentrates and improves the flavour, and gives a nice chew to the texture after the mushrooms are reconstituted. Good-quality dried shiitake are wonderfully perfumed — at home, if I don't double-bag them then the entire pantry ends up smelling of them.

To use dried shiitake, soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes, then use as required. The soaking water takes on plenty of mushroom flavour, and can be used as stock for making soups or stews — though do make sure to let any grit settle to the bottom first, and then pour off the liquid carefully, discarding the gritty sediment.

Shiitake are used in many Chinese dishes. Sometimes they're left whole and constitute a prominent part of the dish, other times they're chopped finely and used to add to the general flavour and texture. Here are some examples:

羅漢齋luó hàn zhāiBuddha's delight/monk's vegetables
According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the shiitake in this dish "welcome spring and symbolize seizing opportunities".
糯米雞nuò mǐ jīglutinous rice in lotus leaf
For me, the three canonical ingredients in this (aside from the rice) are chicken (雞/jī), Chinese sausage (臘腸/là cháng), and shiitake.
粽子zòngziglutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves
Although zòngzi bear some resemblances to nuò mǐ jī, they aren't the same thing.
蜂巢炸芋角fēng cháo zhà yù jiǎocrispy deep-fried taro croquettes
The mushrooms in this tasty dim sum dish are chopped finely to form part of the filling.
蘿蔔糕luó bo gāopan-fried turnip cake
Dried shiitake are used along with dried prawns and Chinese sausage to provide little savoury "nuggets" in the soft daikon-based cake.
火鍋huǒ guōhotpot/steamboat
Shiitake can be used both to make the hotpot stock (medicinal/herbal stock often includes them along with other dried ingredients) and as ingredients for cooking in the stock. They're particularly useful in vegetarian/vegan hotpot, as they add a lot of flavour to the stock.

And here are some links to other people's posts about dried shiitake and other mushrooms:

Footnote: The name "shiitake" is derived from Japanese, not Chinese. However, I believe it to be the most commonly-used name for these mushrooms in English, so I'm using it here in preference to any other. A similar dilemma arises for "tofu" vs. "beancurd"; Fuchsia Dunlop recently discussed this on her blog. It's worth also noting that "shiitake" in Japanese literally means "shii mushroom", so "shiitake mushroom" is perhaps a little redundant, along the lines of "PIN number", though it can be useful to aid comprehensibility.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.


December 2012


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