Despite how often we shop at the Asian supermarket, from time to time we still come across something we’ve walked past probably 50 times and never noticed. This week it was the bags of white fungus. There’s probably half an aisle’s worth of these things—packages of feathery, chrysanthemum-like orbs in shades ranging from white to dark beige. That’s a lot of prime real-estate for something I initially thought was a bath sponge or some kind of “blooming tea” knockoff for those gimmicky glass teapots. I had to buy some and figure out what this stuff was.
Turns out it’s Tremella fuciformus, a gelatinous, parasitic fungi in the same family as the witch’s butter you see on fallen logs all over the place in the Pacific Northwest. It’s apparently cultivated in China for use in gelatinous soups, desserts, and drinks, and for some vague medicinal purpose involving the lungs and kidneys.
The traditional soups using the fungus are all dessert soups, some using papaya (which I can’t stand) or rock sugar, none of which sounded particularly appealing.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid to the rescue! Reason #3,500 I love this book: Of course there’s a recipe for white fungus, and of course it’s incredible; so much so that it’s earned a place in our regular rotation. If you have access to an Asian grocery that carries white fungus, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t try this.
The taste of the fungus is neutral, absorbing the other flavors in the dish, and the texture is pleasantly springy, like an al dente rice-based pasta. This makes 2 servings.
1 oz. dried white fungus: 88 cents
1 T vegetable oil: 3 cents
3 small French shallots (99 cents for a large bag): 12 cents
4 cloves garlic: 10 cents
4 oz. ground pork (ground loin that was $1.98/lb.): 48 cents
1 dried red chile, minced: 1 cent (if you’re into heat, substitute 2 fresh minced Thai chiles)
2 T lime juice: 12 cents
2 T fish sauce: 6 cents
1/2 cup cilantro leaves: 12 cents
TOTAL: $1.92/2 = 96 cents/serving
Thinly slice the shallots, chop the garlic, and tear cilantro leaves into rough pieces.
When the fungi are fully reconstituted into their original glory, as at left, remove and discard the hard core and any discolored parts and roughly chop the remainder. Add the pieces to a large bowl.
Heat a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron skillet (or a proper wok on a gas stove, if you’re all fancy like that) over high heat. Add the oil, heat until smoking, and add the garlic, chile(s) and shallots, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds. Add the pork, again stirring constantly, until no longer pink, about a minute and a half.
Add the lime juice, immediately remove from heat, and stir in the fish sauce. Add the contents of the pan to the fungus and stir well. When no longer hot but still warm, add the cilantro leaves and stir to evenly distribute.
Turn out onto two plates and serve immediately.