Getting to know the fungus amongst us
The summertime monsoon season in Yunnan is when tens of thousands of foraging entrepreneurs and amateur enthusiasts venture into the province's forests in search of wild mushrooms. For most, this exercise is a way to augment incomes, enliven dinner tables or enhance medical treatment — traditions likely as old as civilization itself in Yunnan. All this foraging happens to be an incredibly lucrative industry, with an estimated worth of more than six billion yuan (US$1 billion) annually.
Across much of Southeast Asia, people undertake similar forays into the woods for the duration of the rainy season. But here in Yunnan, the depth of mushroom variety — still only partially understood by scientists — is mesmerizing.
The province possesses an enormous choice of edible species, and Yunnanese — for a few months every summer at least — are spoiled for options. But then, there are the other types — some are bioluminescent, while others contain deadly poisons or induce serious hallucinations. There are also a few varieties you'd think were straight out of a horror movie. So while the options are staggering, you have to be careful what to pick if you head out into the hills in search of some free goodies.
Some of Yunnan's favorite wild shrooms
By most accounts, there are at least 1,000 edible varieties of fungus growing in the forests and meadows of Yunnan. Lichen is one popular ingredient, as is wood ear. These are available year-round, and when served at restaurants, usually sourced from faraway farms. But the wild species so prized by cooks across Yunnan only appear in markets for a few short months. Below are five of the most in-demand mushrooms locally.
Niuganjun (牛肝菌): Known to Westerners by the more familiar name 'porcini', these mushrooms are popular around the world. They primarily grow in shady forests around Yunnan and have a rich nutty or woody flavor. Perhaps the most common way to serve them here South of the Clouds is as part of a simple stir-fry with garlic and spicy green peppers.
Songrong (松茸): Many Yunnan people eat this variety raw, sliced thin and dipped in soy sauce and wasabe. They are also commonly used to flavor simple chicken soups alongside goji berries.
Ganbajun (干巴菌): Only officially identified by professional mycologists in 1987, this variety has been cooked and eaten for dinner in southwest China for far longer. Alongside matsutake, ganbajun are the most expensive wild variety found in the province. Native to Yunnan and often found growing on or around certain species of pine trees, ganbajun are most often prepared simply as a stir-fry with garlic.
Qingtoujun (青头菌): These 'green-headed mushrooms' can be eaten fresh, or just dried for later use. During the summer months they are often slow-cooked as an integral part of savory aromatic soups.
Jizong (鸡纵): This type of fungus grows in grassy meadows and along the shaded peripheries of forests, living in a symbiotic relationship with specific species of termites. In Yunnan it is a prized ingredient for making soups, or is simply served steamed with garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, chilies and a small amount of ham. Many families traditionally stir-fried and then preserve them to be used during the winter months as an addition to cold dishes or noodle broths.
Weird and deadly mushrooms
Mushroom poisonings, from the inconvenient to the downright deadly are so common in Yunnan during the rainy season that the government goes to great lengths each year to warn people. Guides on how to properly identify wild edible mushrooms appear in newspapers, magazines and billboards across the province.
Many of the species growing in the province's forests and meadows are so similar in appearance that accounts of entire families sent to the hospital in excruciating pain appear routinely in newspaper reports. And although no official statistics are usually released, people do die from the mushrooms they consume South of the Clouds. The most shocking example occurred in the mountains around Dali Old Town (大理古城) where, over the course of three decades, hundreds of people died from consuming what many believe to be an extremely toxic mushroom.
It isn't all gloom and doom when it comes to Yunnan mushrooms. At least a few species growing in the province actually produce bioluminescence. This is a continuous process that goes on night and day, although scientists have yet to completely determine either the evolutionary function or metabolic processes involved.
Another extremely queer genus of fungus is cordyceps. This creepy parasitic variety infects a host insect, hijacks the body, kills it and then sprouts tentacles from the corpse. The fruiting body growing from the dead host is armed with countless spores able to repeat the process all over again. In Yunnan they thrive in southern rainforests but also in the Himalayan foothills. At one point in 2012, the alpine caterpillar fungus — a type of cordyceps — gathered in mountain meadows of the province's northwest were selling at two and a half times the price of gold, billed as a natural health booster and alternative to Viagra.
The number of known and properly identified species of edible fungus in Yunnan continues to grow every year. About ten years ago there were thought to be between 600 and 800 different kinds, but that number has swelled to over 1,000 today. Most don't ever show up at wet markets, or the temporary stalls that dot street corners in cities across the province each summer.
Instead, many species are collected locally in forests and don't make it out of the rural counties in which they grow. Nonetheless, in 2017, more than 80,000 metric tons of mushrooms were gathered and sold across the province. A huge percentage — especially of the morels, matsutakes and chanterelles — are shipped overseas to countries including Japan and South Korea.
All of this activity is incredibly lucrative. Most estimates agree that each summer, mushroom sales add the equivalent of at least one billion US dollars to Yunnan's economy. The effects ripple outward as well. Hotpot restaurants — especially those serving menus almost exclusively composed of mushrooms — see an enormous increase in business during the summer months.
The economic bonanza is not limited to one region of Yunnan province. While many of the varieties pictured in this article were photographed in Xishuangbanna Prefecture's Nanban River Nature Reserve, fungi grow nearly everywhere. Some species favor the wet and humid rainforests of the province's south, while others — such as the version of parasitic cordyceps fungus mentioned above — thrive at elevations above 3,000 meters.