Posted in Ingredients

Foodstuff: Chinese Black Fungus

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.

Culinary uses

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.

49 thoughts on “Foodstuff: Chinese Black Fungus

  1. Very well presented! Your understanding is much better than mine. I will give you a rating of 90%. If you include the nutritious value of 木耳 and 雲耳, it will be 100%.
    While I seldom cook with this ingredient, my sister is very fond of it. She just cooked a dish with cloud ear, bean spout and fresh shiitake. I will send you the picture I just took for you. What is the recipe? Ha ha, ask my sister!

    1. Glad you enjoyed …. I should think the nutritional impact of these is fairly negligible given the amounts I typically use. I have read that there are some medicinal benefits but I tend not to pay a great deal attention to this as the information is often contradictory with many foods.

    2. Oh … I got the picture. That looks really nice. I will try something along the same lines. It looks likr there may be oyster mushroom in there too 🙂

      1. you’re right, it has only a bit of earthy flavor and some are chewy.. but they are wonderful ingredient for the color contrast

  2. This is a very useful post thanks. I cook a lot of Chinese dishes here in Ireland and I’ve had difficulty distinguishing wood ear, cloud ear and tree ear fungus in my local Asian market as sometimes the recipe specifies one or the other. Your post helps me make sense of the packaging.

    1. In Chinese writing, the character 木 can be translated as ‘wood’ or ‘tree’ so the terms ‘wood ear’ and ‘tree ear’ certainly refer to the same thing. If there is actually a strict and formal difference between ‘cloud ears’ and ‘wood/tree ears’ it is not reflected in common usage and, since the two varieties are so close in apperance, taste, texture anyway, it seems to me that you can simply use them interchangeably without worrying if a recipe author really meant one sort over another 🙂

  3. I love these. It’s funny that you mentioned that you liked them with pork and cucumbers because I love them with cucumbers too! But I have them minus the pork, and with the addition of dried red chilies.

  4. I love the texture of the fungus. You’ve done a nice job presenting the info! Our family uses wood ear more often – in soup, in stir fry, in mu shu pork type of dishes, and sometimes I would add it in fried rice for a little crunch. I look forward to your future fungus posts. Have you had “white wood ear” before?

  5. That’s so interesting!! I bought something that looks very similar at the market today. They said it was ‘something’s’ ear (I don’t know which animal is meant but I understood “ear”)! When I got home my girlfriend explained to me what they are. I still don’t know which animal the name refers to (in Khmer). I was relieved it wasn’t an animal’s ears. (I’m not vegetarian :-))

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  8. We hike in the hills where we often find the wood ears. I’m wondering if it is ok to eat these fresh and raw – say in a salad.

    1. Ihave never picked wild fungi myself. I have always understood that it i HIGHLY dangerous to consume any fungus unless you are 110% sure of its identity… Myself, I would pass on the wild kind and just go with purchased varieties.

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  11. I recently bought shredded black fungus from an Asian grocery store, not really knowing what I would do with it. Turns out to be a good substitute for noodles or pasta in some dishes… for me at least. A healthy way to cut down the wheat/carb intake in a Western diet.

    1. Pretty much indefinitely as long as you keep them in a dry place. My current ones are probably 2 years old and they are just as fine as when I bought them.

  12. After soaking the Black Fungus, does it all have to be used immediately?, or can you refrigerate it, ? if so how long will it keep in the fridge

      1. I watch on Chinese youtube that once soak the black fungus , you have to use all . Can’t keep in fridge , it is poisonous . Is it true ?

    1. I’ve used the shredded BF in my favourite clear mushroom soup and kept it in the fridge for several days. I’ve also successfully frozen batches of the soup for later use.

  13. Can u tell how long I should soak the black fungus? A friend told me it is poisonous to soak it for more than 10 mins.

    1. Logic should probably tell you that your friend is incorrect… I soak anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or two depending on what else I am doing. You need a minimum of 5 or ten minutes but, after that, I tend to leave them in the water until the time I need them. I have even, on occasion left the until the following day… they haven’t killed me yet 🙂

  14. I use these regularly, great with eggs bitter melon og cucumber with a scrambled duck egg for breakfast. I have a question for you. I had a salad dish with cucumbers and “mouse ear ” black fungus.. They were small and shaped like Mickey Mouse ears. Very thin and wonderful. They are supposed to be available dried but I have never found them. I live in Seattle and go to Vancouver BC several times a year but no luck. Have you heard of these? I would really like to purchase some. I did find them on a Chinese wholesale site but thy were sold in 50lb bags and shipped from China. Great website!

  15. I bought some of the pre-sliced from my local Asian market and did not really know what to do with them other than adding to my seaweed soup recipe. I will be more adventurous with them now that I have been educated about them. Thanks!

  16. I recently purchased “Black Fungus” frozen, assuming it was frozen cloud ear. Does anyone have any information on how to cook it and what the pros and cons of frozen black fungus are?

    1. Assuming the ‘black fungus’ you bought *is* the same thing as ‘tree ears’ or ‘cloud ears’, I would imagine you can cook it pretty much the same as the dried, reconstituted variety. With other foods, the ‘cons’ tend to be that texture is lost once thawed, or that it may ‘go bad. more quickly than when fresh rather than thawed, but, given my experience with this sort of fungus, I wouldn’t say that would be much of a problem.

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