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Foraging for wild edibles in Kunming's hills

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Chili-fried niuganjun
Chili-fried niuganjun

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.

Fiddlehead Ferns

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

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.

Niuganjun

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.

Ganbajun

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

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Comments

I wanted to add another restaurant with wild edibles worth checking out. Underneath the Camel Bar is a restaurant called Jingpo Renjia (景颇人家), a Jingpo minority restaurant with an amazing menu. They have one dish that is not on the menu but they can make if you ask called "paguncai." It is dialect so I don't have the Chinese for it, but it is a dish made from a wild tree vegetable and beef. Really tasty.

Also, it is raspberry season and all over Yunnan, you can find little yellow, orange and red wild raspberries (called "huangpao" 黄袍 or "shumei" 树梅). Dali has some of the most accessible and if you hike up the access road behind the three pagodas, you will find plenty of wild raspberries up around 2500-3000 meters.

And for those who have yet to find satisfactory local restaurants in Kunming, I really stress getting out of the city center and checking out some of the restaurants mentioned in this article. Yiyuan Nongjiacai on Rixin Lu about one block east of Dianchi Lu is really worth the visit. Try the BBQ ribs (best in town), BBQ tofu, wild chicken (野鸡) and any of the other interesting foods you find enticing in their kitchen. This restaurant along with Haigeng Wenxing Restaurant are really proper examples of old-style Kunming cuisine.

Will definitely try out a few of the mentioned restaurants this month. Eager to find some alternative restaurants for a more diverse dining experience.

Can I assume that generally wild vegetables are completely organic? In this case meaning that there's no chemicals (and other unwanted substances) applied before they reach shops and restaurants.

@lihaizi

No. There are no safe or reasonable assumptions about food quality, origin, or safety in China.

Most wild vegetables, especially mushrooms, won't grow in places with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Most grow in forests and wilderness areas. But after collection, there are many things that can happen in transit and in storage before making it to the market or to the plate. But I think it is safe to say that wild edibles are usually organic, at least in theory.

Hi all,

I've been working here in kunming as a manager for a company which buys mushrooms in yunnan since 2010. I can say, without being or feeling presumptuous, that we have no way to be sure that wild mushrooms don't have chemical pesticides or things like these. Although mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms, grow spontaneously in woods and forests, there is no control here in China in terms of food safety. Yunnan woods and forests are a way too big to be controlled and, unfortunately, peasants and farmers here are a way to illiterate or not informed on safety quality procedures to understand that they don't have to use sprays or pesticides on mushrooms. This usually happens with all those varieties that are not consumed or eaten by Chinese people, as 白牛肝 - white porcino - is (even if since a couple of months I've heard that Chinese are slowly beginning to use them).

I feel a bit bitter saying this, but I can confirm that at least the 90% of mushrooms you find here in Kunming has been treated with some kind of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The good news is that some of these things will go away after you clean (i always suggest to use some baking soda powder to clean veggies up) and cook them. Just try to be careful and remember that the nicer veggies and fruit look like, the more chemical pesticides they have. If you want to buy mushrooms (vegetables and fruit in general), then go for the ones which have been a bit eaten by warms: if they eat them, probably they are good!

Really great article, Colin! I am very interested in local fungus, and this article made me want to go on the road and see what sorts of local restaurants I can find.

Another classic Colin Flahive food adventure. Nice work!

@Liliping — good tip about the baking soda. Do you know how to say it or write it in Chinese? My dictionary says 小苏打, but I'm not sure if that is local usage. I'd like to buy some.

I've heard that locals often have contracts to collect fungi on many hills. Foraging on one's own may be stealing from another's rice bowl . . . ?

@GBTEXBOX
I've bought baking soda at Metro, but I'm sure The Box has it too. What you find in the dictionary, and 苏打粉 as well, should be the right translations for baking soda, although Chinese don't use it that much.

P.S. Farmers and peasants who go tho pick up mushrooms in the woods don't have any kind of contract, probably the hordes of "middlemen" and "brokers" have something like a contract or an agreement, but I'm not sure about it.

It's good to know we're free to forage. Wouldn't want to get a blast of rock salt in my rear end.

This article reminds me of something else that sets Yunnan apart. Ask around and you'll find that almost everyone here has tripped on 'shrooms at one time or another. Of course, here the of experience isn't regarded as mind-expanding, maybe because the Chinese Summer of '68 was so unlike that in the US . . .

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