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Yunnan's termite mushrooms 鸡枞菌 (Jizong Jun)


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These elusive jizong wild mushrooms 鸡枞菌 (no English translation) grow in the high backcountry of Yunnan and their life cycle depends on being just above a nest of termites 大白蚁。Their marriage is an obligate symbiosis in that the mushrooms are the main food source of the termites, and the termites allow the mushrooms to reproduce by aiding in spore transfer. If the nest of termites moves, the mushrooms die. They will probably reappear next year above the new nest. 


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Most wild mushrooms, these included, cannot be cultivated. One must hunt them in pristine mountain forests the way one might stalk large game. Two years ago, in August, I took a driving trip into the Tibetan parts of NW Yunnan, up above Lijiang, along the road to Lhasa. One side of the winding road dropped off a thousand meters into a gorge, the other side was dotted with the parked cars of intrepid local fungus hunters. It was open season.


The price of these famously delicious Jizong mushrooms 鸡枞菌 has gone up and up since demand exceeds supply. Not only are they are hard to find and have a short growing season, limited to the wet summer months, but they are highly perishable. They must be searched out, plucked, transported to market, bought and used within 24 to 36 hours. A kilogram of prime ones will easily set you back three hundred Yuan.


Though I go all out and buy the “real ones” when cooking for friends, this time I was only feeding yours truly 一个人 and opted for a less expensive substitute: a taxonomically related mushroom that can in fact be cultivated and costs a fraction of  the glorious wild ones.


They are called “small black jizong” 小黑皮鸡枞菌, being diminutive and of dark surface coloration. Unlike some wild mushrooms, these are completely safe to eat; no chance of lurking poison 没有毒。The seller even offered some for free raw tasting on the spot. He provided a cup of pungent dark chili sauce for dipping, as you see below right. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.)


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If you need help reading the mushroom sign, above right, click the spoiler ("Reveal hidden contents.")



Mushroom sign

美味小鸡枞 = delicious small jizong 

8 /公两 = 100 grams – (A 市两 is 50 grams.)

15 /2公两 = 200 grams

免费吃 = free tasting sample

Writing on the right, top to bottom:

香,甜,脆 = savory, sweet, crisp


Chinese call these 人工的 (“man-made”) and Yunnan natives look down on them. I think they are darned good but must agree that they don’t have that distinctive “explode in your mouth” quality of the best wild ones 野生的。One taste of those and you will sell your soul for a second helping. Worse than opium 抽大烟。


Purveyors of cultivated mushrooms aren’t even in the same section of the market as the wild ones. The “wild sellers” squat on the ground beside their baskets. They usually look distinctly rural, scruffy clothes, dirt under their fingernails presumably from digging up the roots. The “cultivated guys” have actual stands so you don’t have bend or kneel to check out their wares. They offer a large variety of mushrooms; after all, Kunming is a mushroom capital for wild and cultivated ones alike.


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The traditional home-style 传统家常 way to prepare these is to just stir-fry them with spicy green peppers and lots of garlic, and that’s exactly what I did. Bought a handful of the crinkly medium-hot ones on the left below. The same seller offered five or six other varieties, with gradations of fire and sweetness 甜味。Peppers are not just about the heat: they promote complexity of taste; they make food interesting.


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Here are the mushrooms I bought. 300 grams for 20 Yuan. 小黑皮鸡枞菌。The seller has already cut away the roots, "shaping" the bottom of the stem like a school pencil. Buy ones with the caps fully or half closed, not sprung completely open like an umbrella. I cleaned them with a wet paper towel and a small brush then sliced them in half the long way.


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Cleaned and washed a couple of large spring onions 大葱, three heads of single-clove mild garlic 独蒜 and three of the crinkly medium-hot peppers. For an authentic Yunnan flavor, it’s desirable to retain part of the white membranous center when you chop the peppers. It supplies a subtly bitter note which helps in flavor balance. I keep about half the pith and most of the seeds. If you wanted less heat, you could omit the seeds. 


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You wind up with lots of finely sliced pepper and minced garlic. If you are timid about such things, this dish might not be for you. Oddly enough, they don't overpower the mushrooms like one might suspect first time around. Slap the spring onions with the side of your Chinese cooking knife 菜刀 and break them down somewhat. Then slice them on a bias, about 45 degrees. This gives you “onion feathers” that release their essence quickly when introduced to the heat. Lets their flavors combine in seconds with your other ingredients instead of requiring minutes.


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Yunnan ham from Xuanwei County 宣威火腿, aged 12 to 18 months. Hard to go wrong with this flavorful meat in a dozen different applications. Notice how it is marbled. I cut away the rind but leave the exterior fat. If you first put it in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes that will allow you to slice it into fine slivers 肉丝 with very little effort. Cut across the grain.


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Ready now to rock and roll. Everything laid out below. Not pictured are my dry spices, namely salt and MSG, and my wet spices, namely light soy sauce 生抽, yellow rice cooking wine 黄酒, and aged dark vinegar 老陈醋。Set them out where they will be quick to use without having to search for them in the cupboard. If you anticipate being truly rushed, measure the liquid items into a small bowl so you don’t have to fumble with a spoon.



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Set your well-seasoned wok over high flame and when it gets thoroughly hot, just below the smoking point, add your cooking oil and swirl it around to coat. If in doubt regarding whether your wok is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water from your fingertips. They should “skittle” fast across the surface and disappear almost at once. 冷油热锅。


Add the garlic, peppers and ham. Stir and flip them continuously so as to have them cook rapidly and not burn. 不停的翻炒 When the garlic and peppers begin to soften and release their aroma 爆香,add the mushrooms. All new ingredients are added to the center of the wok; it's the hottest part. Leave them there a few seconds undisturbed before mixing with the other ingredients that you have pushed up the sides to make room. Gradually incorporate the new arrivals into what was there before. 


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Continuing to use high heat, cook the mushrooms, peppers, garlic and ham together for a minute or two until the mushrooms become limber and develop a bit of golden color on their cut surfaces. Don’t walk away to check your Facebook; this dish can scorch and become ruined in the blink of an eye. Stir, scoop and flip with the wok tool 国产 nonstop as you shake the pan with your other hand. Blend in the “feathered” spring onions.


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Now is the time for your salt and MSG. Only use a little salt, because the Yunnan ham is salty. I added less than ½ teaspoon. A stingy pinch of MSG, probably no more than 1/8 of a teaspoon. One tablespoon each of vinegar, wine, and soy sauce, stirring after each new addition, so as to be sure they all get very well distributed. You want each bite to be more or less the same seasoning signature.  


As you see, it is taking shape. Continue to scoop and stir another minute or so. Presto, it’s done. Serve it up 装盘。 Prep for a dish like this can be somewhat laborious, but the actual "time over the flame," is no more than 5 or 6 minutes. 



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This makes an excellent vegetable dish as part of a traditional Chinese family-style meal, along with a meat, a salad 凉拌, a soup , and steamed rice 米饭。If I’m eating solo, like I was today, I turn it into a single-dish "gaifan" 盖饭 (as pictured below right) by putting it on a plate together with a small hillock of steamed rice. A bite of this and then a bite of that. Or I can even mix them a little bit with my chopsticks as I go along. Today I had a cucumber and tomato salad plus and ear of boiled corn to round out my simple meal. 


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In the sad event that you don’t live in China, (you have my condolences) I suppose you could still make this dish using one of the more flavorful mushrooms, domestic or wild, from your homeland. They need to have some substance, a little bit of "chew," and should not be completely bland. If you are visiting China, especially the south, you could most likely find something similar in a restaurant by asking the chef for 青椒炒菌子。If you happen to be coming to Yunnan (lucky you) then it's a snap; you have it made. You will have your pick of mushroom dishes here from a slew of small, unassuming eateries as well as luxury establishments specializing in the precious wild ones.  


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10 hours ago, Bibu said:

鸡枞菌 is quite popular for hot pot in big cities.


Yes, at this time of year lots of Kunming restaurants offer wild mushroom hot pot 野生菌火锅 as a seasonal specialty. One chooses a broth first, for example chicken, duck, goose, or pigeon. Then a waitress cooks the mushrooms. If some potentially poisonous varieties are being used, such as niu gan jun 牛肝菌,she even sets a timer on the table and you are not allowed to even dip your chopsticks into the pot until the timer rings. Usually 12 to 15 minutes; sometimes 10. (Jizong jun 鸡枞菌 is not one of the potentially poisonous varieties of wild mushrooms; it is safe to eat.)


After eating the mushrooms you add other items to the boiling broth to finish out the meal. Usually this includes several green leafy vegetables plus corn, lotus root, shanyao 山药, potatoes, and fentiao 粉条。The possibilities are endless and you select an assortment of items from a "check box" menu before starting. 


It's a great meal with friends! I do it two or three times every year.  It's a regional specialty and a seasonal specialty. Not to be missed if you are here in the summer months, approximately from late June to early September. 


Here's an old post (2013) about two such dining adventures:  https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/41836-mushroom-hotpot/

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