It’s not strictly correct to call these ‘Chinese’ black fungi since they are also used in south-east Asia, most notably Thailand, and in the Philippines as well. However, I certainly associate them mostly with Chinese cookery as I generally only see them used in recipes from Chinese cookbooks and have never been served them anywhere other than at a Chinese restaurant as yet.
Serious fans of Chinese cookery have probably heard of ‘wood ears’ or ‘cloud ears’ and both of these terms refer to the fungus. As yet, however, they have not become widely recognized in the west and, indeed, most people, if they have experienced them at all, have probably only done so, possibly unwittingly, in the popular ‘Hot and Sour Soup’. Still these are interesting culinary item and well worth a look…
Here, you can see the two basic varieties a little more closely. The one on the left consists of fairly large pieces that are a dark velvety black on top with a rather mossy looking whitish underside. The ones on the right, in contrast, are smaller and look very much like pieces of burnt crumpled paper without such a distinct change in color between the upper and lower sides.
Both of these products were purchased under the same brand name and the packager has chosen to call the left one白背雲耳, which translates as ‘white-backed cloud ears’, and木耳, which simply means ‘wood ear’ or ‘tree ear’. However, although some will insist the one name refers to one type, and the other to the second, It has been my experience that the names ‘cloud ear’ and ‘wood ear’ are commonly used interchangeably when referring to either sort. Still, to avoid confusion in the rest of this post, I will employ the terms as used by the current packager to identify the two separate kinds.
Before using in recipes, it is necessary to rehydrate the dried varieties by soaking them first and, as you can see, the increase in volume is quite dramatic. Once rehydrated, the flesh becomes quite translucent, with a soft, rather jelly like appearance, and the color softens to a brown hue varying anywhere from a light tan to a deep mahogany. I should admit here, that even after using these fungi for years, I still consistently underestimate that expansion of the dried pieces and seem to always end up with a bit more than I need for a given dish.
To soak, I usually put dried pieces in a bowl, pour over boiling water to cover to a generous depth, and let them sit for 15 minutes or so. Some will tell you that cold water (and a longer soaking time) produces better results but, while this is probably true for certain mushrooms like shiitake or porcini, I don’t see any benefit to going the slower route with these.
If you are going to try these for the first time, you should also be aware that it is usually necessary to trim away the ‘stem’ part of the rehydrated ‘ears’ as they can remain tough and woody. The ones I soaked for this particular post were actually not that bad but, in the above photograph, I have used the tip of a knife to point out the part in question.
I should also note that it is possible to buy packages of black fungi that have been pre-shredded, as shown above. This is moderately useful, especially for making soup, but, in the main, I would prefer to buy the whole pieces and then trim to whatever size I want.
First, you should know that this is a product that is used primarily for texture rather than taste. A lot of sources repeat this and then state that the fungi have no taste at all, but, actually, this is not strictly accurate. The wood ears, it is true, have little to no flavor (other than a faint, almost ephemeral woody-sandy taste when raw), but the cloud ears do have a very definite, albeit mild, taste of cucumber and grass. Still, other than in a very simple cold dish, whatever taste that does exist will almost always be masked by other flavors.
Now, as I say, it is really the texture (and to a lesser degree the color) of these fungi that make them popular in various dishes. Both have a very crisp bite that gives way to a softness at the same time but the two differ slightly. The wood ears are a little more tender even when raw, and there is a bit more of a jelly like feel, but they still have that little resistance to the tooth that is a bit like biting through an apple skin. In the cloud ears, this quality is much more pronounced and has a greater ‘snap’ to the bite. Indeed, if you have ever wondered what eating pigs ears is like but are hesitant to order them in a Chinese restaurant, then try biting into freshly hydrated cloud ears as this will give you a pretty good idea of the textural quality.
Black fungi are sometimes added to cold preparations, or even served alone with various dressings, but they are more frequently cooked with other vegetables, meat, or both. I have already mentioned their use in hot and sour soup, and readers will likely also recognize the popular dish known as ‘Mu Shu Pork’. Black fungi are traditionally included in this preparation, although in many restaurants in the west they are omitted. In future posts, I will do a few different dishes using both varieties and the first, I think, will be a dish I very much enjoy that features them with pork and cucumbers.