Season of Plenty: Yunnan's Mushroom Harvest
Upstairs, in a small private dining room, this last specimen, called bamboo mushroom, or zhusun jun, was served simply, almost reverentially, quick-sautéed with no seasoning at all—nothing to interfere with its earthy flavor. The texture was silky, with a slight crunch; the honeycombed head and lacy veil were like very fragile tripe. "This is one you can enjoy with your mouth, your eyes, and your belly," said Yuan Wenshou, the restaurant's owner.
His friend, the gregarious Dr. Dequn Zhou, a mycologist at Kunming University of Science and Technology, kept the conversation flowing while Yuan poured out tiny cups of truffle-infused corn wine. A parade of mushroom dishes continued to appear, including a fried rice made with meiwei niugan, or delicious cow's liver mushrooms—known in the West as porcini or cèpes. Zhou called the mushroom by its botanical name, Boletus edulis, and explained that it's one of Yunnan's most valuable mushroom exports, largely because no one's figured out how to cultivate it. With a wry smile, he remarked, "Unfortunately, we cannot cultivate Boletus. Fortunately, we cannot cultivate Boletus."
But the main attraction was the mushroom hot pot bubbling away at the center of the table, its broth enriched with some 40 species of mushrooms. Every so often a young woman would appear to add a different fresh mushroom to the pot; every time she ladled some into our bowls, it had been transformed into a new, more intensely concentrated soup. Yuan explained that his was one of the oldest mushroom hot pot restaurants in town—that is, it's been in business for a decade now. It turns out that the kind of elaborate hot pot meal we'd sat down to is a recent development, a product of the mushroom boom that's transformed life in Yunnan over the past 20 years. This meal was a tribute to the almighty mushroom.