The rainy season is finally here, and with it comes more than just drought relief. At this time every year wild mushrooms are spreading their spores in pine forests, wild edible ferns are sprouting up through the soil and all sorts of other wild edibles are popping up in the hills around Kunming.
For culinary connoisseurs and adventurous eaters, this is one of the best times of year to take advantage of Kunming's diverse local fauna when planning a meal.
Few people in the world take as much pleasure and pride in the collection and preparation of wild vegetables, yecai (野菜), and wild mushrooms, yesheng mogu (野生蘑菇), as Kunmingers.
Over the next few months culinary enthusiasts from all over the city will climb the nearby hills foraging for free delicacies. Vendors of wild edibles will be found stationed outside almost every vegetable market and restaurants will take the opportunity to add seasonal items to their menus.
For the uninitiated, wild vegetables and mushrooms can be intimidating. It takes special training to be able to identify what is edible and what is poisonous. Two years ago it was discovered that a certain kind of mushroom may have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds in Dali over the past 30 years.
Selecting the right mushroom doesn't necessarily make it safe to eat. The improper preparation of niuganjun (牛肝菌), one of Yunnan's most coveted mushrooms, has been blamed for sending many to emergency rooms each year with hallucinations that can last up to three days.
Even ordering wild vegetables or mushrooms at a restaurant can be a daunting task for those unfamiliar with them. But for those willing, the adventure of collecting, preparing and eating wild edibles can be very rewarding. Below is a list of several popular wild edibles that can be found outside of Kunming right now.
Called juecai (蕨菜) in Chinese, fiddlehead ferns are some of the most ancient edibles on the planet. They can be found in almost every country in the northern hemisphere and come in many different shapes and colors.
Fiddleheads get their name form the curled tips of their fronds displayed while still young. Only when they are young and the tip has yet to unwind are they actually edible. The ferns must be soaked in water for two days before cooking to leach out potentially carcinogenic toxins.
Yunnan has two main varieties. The more sought after variety grows in small patches high on the hills around Kunming and only appears during the rainy season.
A more common variety of fiddlehead, located near lakes and streams, is called water fiddlehead or shui juecai (水蕨菜). These can be cooked immediately after harvesting and minority restaurants throughout Kunming serve them up in a variety of different ways.
Arguably the most popular fiddlehead dish around town is fermented bean fried fiddlehead, referred to locally as doushi chao shuijuecai (豆豉炒水蕨菜). Dai minority restaurants like Mangshi Daiwei and Yingjiang Daiweiyuan do particularly delicious fry ups.
Maticai (马蹄菜) is another favorite wild vegetable of Dai cuisine. The leafy green is often found near fiddlehead patches and can be distinguished by its thin, twisting stalks and broad, fan-shaped leaves. Boiled or fried, maticai gives any dish a hearty texture and a fragrance similar to anise or licorice.
The vegetable is also highly regarded for its medicinal value and is said to improve digestion and circulation. The most popular dish using this wild vegetable is maticai yuanzi tang (马蹄菜圆子汤) — a fragrant soup made with pork meatballs.
This mushroom is a Yunnan species of porcino and one of Yunnan's most treasured wild edibles. There are two main varieties to be found around local markets — one yellow and one red. Both have a uniquely meaty texture and a full buttery flavor.
A common recipe in Kunming is to fry the wild mushrooms in oil with spicy green peppers. To add a Western twist, toss in a little butter, lemon juice and diced parsley after frying.
When preparing this mushroom, it is always best to do so under the supervision of an experienced local as improper preparation can lead to intense stomach aches and lengthy hallucinations. Restaurants all over the city serve up these mushrooms, but the Yi minority restaurant, Yiyuan Nongjiacai (彝园农家菜), is especially worth a visit. Don't forget to order the barbecue ribs too.
This is arguably one of the world's most flavorful mushrooms. Ganbajun (干巴菌) look nothing like typical edible mushrooms and more resemble fossilized black coral blossoming from the base of pine trees. They have a flavor similar to truffles but with a heartier texture.
This mushroom requires patience to prepare as each one must be shredded by hand to remove pine needles and other forest floor debris before cooking. They can be found in the forests just south of Kunming.
The mushrooms won't grow anywhere near pesticides so there is little need to obsess about cleaning. Excessively washing ganbajun with water is considered a culinary no-no in Kunming as they will steam themselves while frying.
It is still early in the mushroom season for ganbajun, so prices are high right now but will drop in August. Locals usually fry this mushroom in oil with red or green chilies. Haigeng Wenxing restaurant (海埂温馨饭店) serves up an excellent mushroom stir fry, but be prepared to pay a high price for the delicacy.
There are many more wild edibles in and around Kunming, and Simao Yecaiguan (思茅野菜馆) is perhaps the best restaurant in town to experiment with all of them. Serving cuisines of the Wa and Hani minorities, this restaurant specializes in wild vegetables, mushrooms, meats and even insects.
For the more adventurous, go for a hike around Xishan, Baozhu Temple, Bamboo Temple or Qipan mountain and take a look for yourself. Many Kunming locals spend their weekends foraging for wild delicacies, so if you're lucky, perhaps you'll meet someone willing to share their knowledge.
Fiddlehead fern image: thekitchn© Copyright 2005-2018 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.