These ‘black’ mushrooms actually range from light brown to dark brown in colour. The most popular are the larger sized, light brown ones with a highly cracked surface. These are, predictably, the most expensive ones. But all versions and grades of this mushroom add a most desirable flavour and aroma to Chinese recipes. It is interesting to note that these mushrooms grow on fallen, decaying trees; the Chinese have been gathering them for over a thousand years. The Japanese cultivate them by growing them on the shii tree, hence the familiar shiitahe mushrooms.
The Chinese rarely eat the mushrooms fresh. Rather, they prefer the dried version because this process concentrates the smoky flavours of the mushrooms and allows them to absorb sauces and spices, imparting an even more succulent texture. This makes them most appropriate for use as seasonings, finely chopped and combined with meats, fish, or poultry. These dried black mushrooms are prescribed for respiratory and other problems.
Depending on your budget, the lighter and more expensive grade is the best to buy. These should be reserved for special occasions. However, for normal everyday fare, a moderately priced good quality mushroom is fine.
In an air-tight container, they will keep indefinitely in a cool dry place. If they are not to be used often, store them in the freezer.
To use Chinese dried mushrooms: Soak them in a bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes or until they are soft and pliable. Squeeze out the excess water and cut off and discard the woody stems. Only the caps are used.
The soaking water can be saved and used in soups and as rice water, as a base for a vegetarian stock, or added to sauces or braised dishes. Strain through a fine sieve to remove any sand or residue from the dried mushrooms.
© Ken Hom and reproduced with his kind permission.