Ever felt at a loss when choosing Chinese dried mushrooms, and wondering if you were getting cheated? This guide will teach you the different grades of Chinese mushrooms to look out for and how to select the best ones!
Its almost Chinese New Year and everyone is busy stocking up on ingredients for the reunion dinners traditionally celebrated by Chinese families.
So NOW’S the best time to beef up your knowledge about common Chinese New Year ingredients, starting with dried Chinese mushrooms!
BUT FIRST, A QUIZ!
Q: What is the difference between the two types of Chinese dried mushrooms below? Which one would you choose and why?
P.S. If you just want the short answer, you can scroll down to the bottom of the post to satisfy your curiosity!
Different Grades of Dried Shiitake Mushroom
There are 3 different grades of Chinese Mushrooms (Dried Shiitake Mushroom) or 香菇 (Xiang Gu) commonly used in Chinese cooking.
1. Flower Mushrom (花菇 Hua Gu)
The best grade of dried shiitake mushroom is known as the Flower Mushroom or 花菇 (Hua Gu) (photo, left).
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can easily identify them by the distinctive fissures on its cap which look like the pattern of a flower (photo above, left) compared to normal grade mushrooms which are completely brown (photo above, right).
BEST USED FOR:
Flower Mushroom (Hua Gu) is best used for dishes where the mushrooms are the star of the dish, or where dish requires the whole mushroom without being sliced up.
Some of my Chinese New Year picks of dishes that use Flower Mushrooms include Pen Cai (盆菜), Braised Claypot Tofu with Vegetables (红烧砂锅豆腐) and Braised Chinese Mushrooms (Men Dong Gu) which is often paired with ever-auspicious Dried Oysters (Ho Si, meaning ‘good things’) and Black Moss (Fatt Choy, meaning ‘prosperity’)!
2.Winter Mushroom (冬菇 Dong Gu)
The next best grade is known as the Winter Mushroom or 冬菇 (Dong Gu).
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
Its simple enough to distinguish Flower Mushroom, but the difference between Winter Mushroom (photo below, left) and the Fragrant Mushroom (photo below, right) are much more subtle. Here are some of the tell tale signs you can look out for:
- Thickness of the Caps Winter Mushrooms should have thick meaty caps, whereas Fragrant Mushrooms have thin and flattish caps.
- Curl in the Edges The caps of Winter Mushrooms should have rounded edges that curl inwards. In contrast, the caps of Fragrant Mushrooms have very little curl in the edges, or edges may splay outwards instead.
- Shape Winter Mushrooms should nicely formed and unbroken. In contrast, Fragrant Mushrooms may be poorly formed with frayed or broken edges.
BEST USED FOR:
Winter Mushroom are best used for dishes using sliced mushrooms where there is less scrutiny on the presentation of the mushroom, but where the taste and texture is still important.
My Chinese New Year picks of dishes that use Winter Mushrooms include the all-time favourite Chap Chye (Braised Mixed Vegetables) and Celestial Eight Treasure Duck 八宝鸭. And because I love claypot cooking, I’m going to just throw this in the mix too: Spicy Claypot Eggplant with Minced Pork (鱼香茄子煲) (you can watch the video here)!
3. Fragant Mushroom (香菇 Xiang Gu)
The standard grade of Chinese dried mushrooms is known simply as Fragrant Mushroom or 香菇 (Xiang Gu) , which is also the generic term of Shiitake Mushroom in Mandarin.
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
BEST USED FOR:
Fragrant Mushroom are usually used for 煲汤 (Bo Tong, meaning “long boiling soups”) or where the purpose is to add flavours to the dish and there is less scrutiny on the texture of the mushroom.
My Chinese New Year picks for dishes using fragrant mushrooms would be Napa Cabbage Soup with Chicken with Chinese Ham and Preserved Duck Gizzards (you can watch the video here), as well as the most kid-friendly choice of Sweet Corn Pork Rib Soup.
TIPS FOR SELECTING DRIED SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
Whichever grade of shiitake mushrooms you are buying, here are some rules of thumb you can use when choosing mushrooms:
- Avoid packaged mushrooms where possible. It is always best to select mushrooms from a loose pile where is it easier to verify the quality of the mushrooms. Sometimes, the larger and nicer-looking mushrooms are packed on top of the smaller and ugly ones below, so don’t be deceived, folks!
- Avoid pre-sliced mushrooms. Don’t fall temptation to the convenience of pre-sliced shiitake mushrooms, which are usually inferior grade mushrooms. Once it is sliced, people can’t tell that they were actually poorly formed or broken to begin with. You are almost certainly going to end up paying for more than what they are worth. Usually the sliced up ones are very tough and chewy, and are only good for soup.
- Mushrooms imported from Japanese are pricier, but then to be of better quality as compared to the ones imported from China. But bear in mind that they cost quite a bit more!
- Look for thick caps. Thick caps give the mushrooms a more substantial bite, especially if the mushrooms are going to be eaten whole.
- Pick those with short and skinny stems. The stems are too tough to be eaten and are usually discarded. So long and bulky stems will only add unnecessary weight to your purchase.
- Mushrooms should have well formed, curled in edges. As noted previously, mushrooms of inferior quality are usually poorly formed, have fraying edges, little curl in the edges of the cap.
- Check for light coloured gills. Mushrooms with dark coloured gills are not as fresh and may have been kept in storage for sometime.
- Avoid soft, limp or damp mushrooms. These mushrooms are not fresh and will become rubbery and chewy after cooking.
- Let your nose be your guide. Choose mushrooms that smell very fragrant, these are usually the good ones.
- The larger the mushroom, the more expensive you would expect it to be.
And finally, the answer you have all been waiting for. Let’s take a look at the picture again shall we?
The Winter Mushroom on the right that has been ‘modified’ with a few shallow incisions on its cap before the drying process to give the impression of flower shaped fissures. You can tell that the incisions are man-made because the pattern looks too straight and neat.
Now, am I the only one who thinks it is rather unethical for sellers to ‘beautify’ the Winter Mushroom in such a way that could mislead buyers into thinking this is a Flower Mushroom? Do share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below!
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