06 November 2012

Shiitake mushrooms are not all the same

If there was a contest, I vote Montreal's Chinatown(s) to be the worst Chinatown in North America. For a city this size, Montreal's Asian quarters are sad, especially for the sizeable East Asian population. The Asian supermarkets are overpriced, variety stinks and quality is meh, at best.

Take for example, the sorry state of shiitake mushroom selection in this city.

This is what you get at the local Loblaws chain (which also owns the T&T Supermarket chain):
[These shiitake mushrooms have an extra "i". Also, not much far off from the ones in our Azn groceries, but still...]
You can fool gweilo, but you can't fool a discerning Chinese glutton like me; calling that shiitake mushrooms is like calling Coors Lite "beer". Recommended use for these ones: chopped up in dumpling filling. I don't need to see that poppycock served to me.

And then there's what you can get, for example, in butt[expletive] suburbia from a random Asian grocery store in Markham, Ontario where Asian malls outnumber Tim Hortons franchises:

[Shiitake with distinctive crackles. Crackles on mushrooms are what sprinkles are to cupcakes.]
In Chinese cooking, the most revered grades of shiitake are winter mushrooms (dong gu冬菇, fragrant mushroom (heong gu菇, and white flower mushroom (bak fah gu花菇.

The quality of these mushrooms depend on the season, temperature in which they're grown, humidity, pH levels of the growing medium (often just tree trunks or logs), and all that junk. Winter versions are obviously cultivated in winter when the humidity is lower which helps create the crackled patterns on the cap, and produce meatier caps... mmm meaty.

As you can see from above, there's a discernible difference between good and not so good (usually prices will be a good indicator), which I have outlined below:

  • Very dark cap and stems
  • Little or no floral pattern
  • Small, wrinkled caps
  • Dense
  • Thin caps
  • Long stems
  • Dark gills
  • Light in colour
  • Pronounced floral pattern on cap
  • Light in weight
  • Large caps
  • Thick caps
  • Shorter stems
  • Delicate-looking
  • Pale-coloured gills
Connoisseurs recommend rehydrating dried shiitake in cold (not hot or boiling) water, as hot water will likely "destroy the flavour". I say, "Be a man; do the right thing," but that's just me.

If you're lucky enough to have access to fresh ones (home-grown or in store), you'll probably appreciate the delicate umami flavours more than the dried ones might lack; nonetheless, you should still look for fresh ones that exhibit similar qualities.

(Treehugger posted a step-by-step article on growing shiitake on oak logs. Or you can buy one of these shiitake growing kits from Amazon and have the most disgusting-looking centerpiece in your neighbourhood!) 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tips. To be honest, I've never really paid too much attention to my shiitakes. But a disgusting centrepiece? Sounds fun :)2124