Mushrooms are a deceptively essential yet basic ingredient in fine dining all over the world. Examples of these popular funghi include truffles from Europe and matsutake (pine mushrooms) from Japan, which are famous for their intense flavours and aromas. In Chinese cuisine, mushrooms can also add a “freshness” to the food and are usually cooked with meats or seafood. It is a widely held belief that dried Chinese mushrooms are good for health and are thus an essential yet tasty addition to Cantonese soup sometimes. However, truffles and other European mushrooms have entered the traditional Chinese cuisine scene, allowing us to appreciate a wider variety of mushrooms in Chinese cooking.
Chef Chan from the Celestial Court restaurant in the Sheraton, Hong Kong shares with us Hong Kong’s twin passions for mushrooms and wine.
AP: Asian Palate CC: Chef Chan
AP: What is the main difference in the use of mushrooms in cooking between Asian and Western cuisine?
CC: There are some differences and some similarities. Unlike Western cooking, we use chili and spices in Chinese cooking in order to combat the “coldness and poison” in mushrooms.
AP: Is it difficult sourcing good mushrooms in Hong Kong, and why?
CC: It is difficult- honest and reliable companies are really hard to find, so I have to go buy the mushrooms personally. I went to Mainland China’s mountains to source at first at my own personal expense and safety. When I was in the high mountains, I got a headaches and dizziness so I had to rest. There were also many unofficial established businesses in places like Kunming in 1997, so I just had to try the mushrooms myself without fear! It is very dangerous in case we buy any poisonous mushrooms, since we are importing them for official use in Hong Kong, and nothing can go wrong in hotels!
AP: Which type of mushroom would you consider the most challenging cooking, and for what reason?
CC: There are three that I would consider- first, it is really hard to cook sarcodon aspratus. No matter how you roast it or stir fry it, the flavor just doesn’t come out unless you add meat flavor or garlic. Second is matsutake. I don’t think that adding flavours is a good idea because the flavours are very delicate- they can only add to the delicacy of the dish. Matsutake do not possess a sweet flavour though, and thus men enjoy it more than women do. It is like when men like cigars, and most women do not. Termite mushrooms from Deep-fried Prawns and Termite Mushrooms on Crispy Rice Toast is also difficult to cook. You have to really roast it in order to really taste the unique aroma. It is richer in flavour and sweeter than matsutake, and thus more preferred by women.
AP: What was the most original use of mushroom in cooking in a dish that you created?
CC: I think it is the truffle. We can eat it fresh of course, but if dried, we cannot use it in many ways. We roast the truffle when we have Roasted Whole Suckling Pig stuffed with Pearl Barley, Black Truffles, Glutinous Rice, Ham and Wild Mushrooms. Fresh truffle can also be stir-fried with snails.
AP: Would you consider mushroom dishes to be popular in Hong Kong?
CC: Yes, definitely! Not just in Hong Kong- Mainland Chinese people also come here to learn the cooking methods. Although it is their mushrooms, they do not know how to cook them in special ways. The new cookbooks are not reliable so you have to look for the old Chinese recipes since they do not cheat and really teach you how to cook mushrooms. You can find them nowhere in China but Hong Kong, so Mainland Chinese people come here to learn.
AP: What is your most popular mushroom dish and what makes it so popular?
CC: Roasted Whole Suckling Pig stuffed with Pearl Barley, Black Truffles, Glutinous Rice, Ham and Wild Mushrooms. It is so popular it’s sold all year round, so you’ve gotta book it. I even freeze it so it can be quickly cooked. Fortune Chicken with Matsutake and Button Mushrooms is also popular.
AP: What are the current in-season mushrooms for fall and winter?
CC: There have been no more fresh mushrooms since mid-September, and seven to eight months are needed before the truffle season comes. However, there are no worries, since I freeze my mushrooms so that we ca