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A Yunnan specialty: Wild mushroom sauce 鸡枞菌油

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Summer is wild mushroom season in Yunnan, peak time for skilled hunters to find them in the forest and peak time for you to find them in the market. Peak time to eat them in a restaurant or make them at home. Today’s report is about a robust and spicy mushroom sauce concoction that can turn the humblest bowl of noodles into a memorable gourmet treat. It's highly prized in Yunnan, 云南特产,though not well known in other parts of China or in the west. Shown here with sautéed red bell pepper 红甜椒 strips on top of freshly made 碱面 noodles. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.)

 

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In the interest of keeping costs down, one can use a mixture of several varieties of mushrooms, including some which are less expensive. But since we have had a bumper crop of Jizong 鸡枞菌 this year, Yunnan’s prized “termite mushroom,” I splurged and used just that one kind to make a deluxe version: Jizong sauce 鸡枞菌酱 or jizong oil 鸡枞油。

 

Here’s a quick look at the process. If you need a detailed recipe, let me know. Pictured below is a kilogram of jizong wild mushrooms, picked within the last 24 hours in the wild. Cost me 135 Yuan. Found them once again at Kunming’s main wild mushroom wholesale market 木水花野生菌批发市场。Getting a little more savvy about the acquisition process: Bought these from the back of someone’s van instead of from an official vendor who had paid rent on an inside stall. (Below right.)

 

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Before cleaning, separate the stems and tops. This prevents sand from the stem (菌柄) from washing into the gills of the cap (菌盖)Nothing worse than biting down onto a mouthful of gritty mushrooms. Well, that’s not quite true. A poison “look-alike” mushroom would be worse. Fortunately, these jizong 鸡枞菌 are safe. It’s not a “tricky” variety.

 

Once they are thoroughly cleaned, by which I mean trimmed and brushed and scrubbed and rinsed, shred the stems by hand and slice the tops into coarse chunks.

 

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The spices 调味品: Twice as much garlic as ginger by volume. A generous handful of dry red peppers 干辣椒。I use a local pepper which has lots of flavor but not too much heat. It’s the 丘北 Qiubei pepper, from Wenshan Prefecture 文山州 in the SE of Yunnan province. I will only use a tablespoon or so of the dried 花椒 (Sichuan prickly ash) shown here, not the whole bowl. At the end I’ll add some fresh green ones and mix them in.

 

Heat the wok over medium heat, add a lot of fragrant rape seed oil 浓香菜籽油, 300 to 500 ml, and fry the aromatics until you smell them, being careful not to let them burn.

 

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Add the mushrooms after draining and shaking out all the rinse water 沥干水。Stems go in first to get a head start, followed in a minute or two by the tops. Stir almost non-stop in order to prevent sticking and scorching. Medium fire at first, then quickly change to low. As they cook, the mushrooms will “sweat” out their water and break down, reducing quite a bit in bulk. If you wish to moderate the effect of the chilies, you can pick some or all of them out after a few minutes.  

 

In about 30 minutes they start to take on a golden color. Add a small amount of salt at that point. No other seasonings. Continue frying them until the color deepens, becomes richer. Mine required between 30 and 45 minutes, constantly attended. I took off my shirt, put on headphones and tuned in to an audiobook.

 

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At long last, scoop everything out, all solids plus the remaining oil. Let it cool. This was the first time I have made this, so I'm not an expert. Kept sending WeChat snapshots back and forth to a friend who has made this at home for years. He would say, "add more oil" or "it needs to be more golden, cook it longer."  

 

     

The finished product can be stored in a crockery jar for a couple months, maybe more. I keep mine in the fridge, but am told that's being overly cautious. My friends just keep it on a kitchen shelf beside the 红油 (hot chili oil.)

 

The Chinese name translates as "mushroom oil." 菌油 -- 鸡枞油 or 油鸡枞。The technique involved is not at all the same as what western culinary traditions call either a ragout or a ragu.  Even calling it a "sauce" is a bit of a stretch. Wish I could talk it over with Julia Child, but she's gone. 

 

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Is making this great stuff cheap, quick and easy? No, afraid not. Furthermore, it requires lots of oil and cleanup is a chore. 

 

But is it delicious? Yes, in a major way. Use it on noodles, as above, or as a condiment to give some zing to a bowl of chicken soup. Put some in with your wonton 馄饨 broth. Add it to fried rice. Slather some on a hot steamed bun 馒头。

 

The mushrooms retain enough texture to require that you chew them. As you chew they release layer upon layers of complex earthy flavors plus a huge hit of umami. Aftertaste is clean and almost sweet.  

 

 

 

An authentic “Bite of China.” An authentic “Taste of Yunnan.” 云南风味食品。Hand made at home with care. Better quality than what you could purchase on line or in a store. You know for sure that only top ingredients were used and you know that no shortcuts were taken. To my way of thinking, that makes it worthwhile. 

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Head-to-head taste test:

 

Was bragging about this home made 鸡枞油 to a local friend in the course of giving her a small jar of it as a "kitchen present." She phoned her mom and asked if she still made it at home like in the old days, or bought it commercially prepared. Mom said she preferred the hand-made kind, but had found an acceptable brand to use when she didn't have time to make it from scratch. A few days later, the three of us tested the "store-bought" kind against my home production.

 

The kind that Mom suggested is very nicely packaged. An outer carton plus an inside jar with a pull-tab metal lid inside a standard screw top. Production date on our sample was very recent, 2019/08/03, earlier this month. The factory is located in Kunming. I would be surprised if it is widely distributed, though that's just a guess.

 

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The jar contained 360 grams 净含量, with over 39% solids 固形物含量。(Important, since a cheap brand could be mostly oil and not much mushrooms.) They say it has a 12 months shelf life 保质期 if it's stored on a well-ventilated shelf, out of direct sun. 

 

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The fine print on the label indicated that this jizong oil 油鸡枞 was not all jizong mushrooms 鸡枞野生菌。They had mixed in an unknown amount of oyster mushrooms 平菇, which can be cultivated and are much less expensive than genuine wild jizong "termite mushooms." MSG was added, in the form of 鸡精, and they used an unknown amount of a chemical preservative, potassium sorbate, 山梨酸钾。 

 

Side by side the store-bought jizong oil and the home made product looked similar. (Mine is on the left plate in both photos.) The oil used to fry the mushrooms in the store-bought product looked a little less viscous than the high-grade rapeseed oil 浓香菜籽油 which I had used. It was in fact listed as 大豆油, a type of oil extracted from soybeans.  Nothing wrong with that, just a slightly different flavor. 

 

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We tasted for flavor balance, saltiness, and (pepper) heat. Checked as well for any "off" notes or bitterness. Method used was spreading some mushrooms and some oil on a piece of steamed bun 馒头 that had been slightly warmed in the microwave.  

 

To be frank, we all liked the store-bought condiment almost as well as the home-made version. One could do much worse. It was reasonably priced at 37 Yuan per jar. We all thought it would make a thoughtful gift, nicely packaged as it was. Buying a jar of it would save a lot of mess and fuss, a plus if one were pressed for time. 

 

Nonetheless, as long as fresh jizong 鸡枞菌 remain in season, two or three more weeks, and I can easily get to the wholesale mushroom market only 20 or 30 minutes from my home and load up on prime specimens at a decent price, I will continue cranking it out by hand. This probably means one or two more batches. I can adjust the seasonings to taste, plus I will have no doubts about whether any corners have been cut, no concerns about whether it was produced under sanitary conditions and I'll be assured that nothing harmful has been surreptitiously added. 

 

Such good stuff, so versatile, so rich and mellow. A pity that I didn't discover it until recently. This is one of those glories of regional Chinese cooking that has not made it to the west. My friends back in the US don't know what they're missing.

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