Mushrooms play a predominant role in countless Chinese dishes. Not only do they add an umami layer of flavor, but depending on the variety, they can impart texture as well. And while often, fresh ingredients are preferred over dried, it is not the case with funghi, particularly in Chinese cooking. Dried mushrooms are actually more commonly used as they add a different complexity in taste, offering dual purpose as once the mushrooms are reconstituted in warm water, the water itself transforms into a flavorful stock once strained and can be added to soups and braises.
Chinese Black Mushrooms (香菇)
Chinese black mushrooms are synonymous with shiitakes. Although they originate from Japan, they are arguably the most popular variety used in Chinese cuisine and have been used for thousands of years in the country medicinally, containing a wealth of nutrition including protein and Vitamin B, as well as minerals such as iron and potassium. In dried form, the concentration of nutritional values only increases.
There are differing Chinese terms for different types of shiitake including xiāng gū, which literally translates to fragrant mushroom and huāgū for flower mushroom. Colors vary, ranging from light to dark brown and markings differ, with a crackled pattern being the most associated with the best quality and commanding higher prices. Shiitakes possess a thick texture and meaty flavor that really fortify a dish, exemplified in zongzhi (rice tamales), beggar’s chicken, and braised mushrooms in oyster sauce.
Oyster Mushrooms (蠔蘑)
Oyster mushrooms or háo mó are characterized by their large flat and thin, white caps resembling fans. Their mild flavor and aroma lend well to classic, clean dishes like braised mushrooms with bok choy. The king oyster or guówáng háo mó variety possesses a thick but tender stem, perfect for slicing and sautéing with ginger.
Wood Ear Mushrooms (木耳)
Black wood ears, found in dried form, also called black fungus or mù ěr may not have the most enticing name, but they add a delightful crunch mixed with springy consistency without added flavor. They exist in a dish purely for texture. Once reconstituted, they expand to as much as five times their size and are known for their appearance in hot and sour soup and mushu pork.
White Wood Ear Mushrooms (白木耳)
As the name implies (bái mù ěr), it is much lighter in color, more delicate in texture, a bit more gelatinous, and even milder in flavor than its counterpart. Once soaked, it becomes more translucent in appearance. Seen more often in desserts such as a dessert soup with a simple syrup base, they are also added to savory soups, or stir-fried in vegetarian dishes.
Mushrooms perfectly permeate texturally and flavor-wise in a bounty of Chinese dishes, savory to sweet and in different cooking techniques, marking their versatility and place in the cuisine.