Every year in May, when the monsoon rains first begin to fall on the snow-capped peaks and forested foothills of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, residents young and old strap wicker baskets to their backs and head out into the hills. It is the start of mushroom foraging season in the region, which is home to 20 percent of all plant species in China and, by some counts at least, 1,000 varieties of edible fungus.
Along with the annual rains, the biogeographical convergence of tropical, temperate and alpine climates here have combined to provide the ideal conditions for all manner of mushrooms to thrive. Some grow amid the lush grasses of the sun-soaked meadows, others sprout in the damp and dark forests, and a few choose mountainside elevations above 3,000 meters in which to spawn. Some are deadly poisonous, others are bioluminescent, but all of the 160,000 metric tons that are gathered in the province each year are eaten or made into medicine.
This colossal feat of foraging is incredibly lucrative, both for opportunist local entrepreneurs and the province as a whole. Poor rural families earn much of their living during the fungi season, while a street dedicated to wild mushroom hotpot in the provincial capital of Kunming throngs with foodies in the balmy summer months. All in all, it is estimated that the picking season adds more than a billion U.S. dollars to Yunnan’s otherwise modest economy each year.
A very small slice of this is carved out by mushroom tourism, a new but growing trend, predominantly popular among China’s adventure-hungry city slickers. Each rainy season, visitors trudge after local guides, all eyes fixed on the ground in search of nature’s bounty.
But such activities are not without their risks. Mushroom poisonings are so common in Yunnan that the government goes to great lengths to publish guides, newspaper articles and billboards each year to warn locals about the dangers of poisonous mushrooms and help them identify which they can and cannot consume. As a result, only a handful of tour companies have managed to secure genuine experts to their rosters.
“Few agencies conduct mushroom-picking tours given the complexity of the time, weather and location variables, as well as the many poisonous varieties,” explains Robin Chen of the Lijiang China International Travel Service. “Last year we hired a very experienced local farmer to lead a tour of Chinese tourists in the woods, but it’s not a common trend among foreign tourists yet as it’s even harder to find knowledgeable guides who speak English.”
Once gathered, the different varieties of fungi receive different preparations in Yunnan’s domestic and professional kitchens. The robust Jicong is typically stir-fried with cured ham, while the xiakuai summer truffle is shaved raw over rice and egg dishes. Many of the best-known varieties, including morels, matsutake and chanterelles, are shipped to restaurants and markets overseas, either by a high-speed train, known locally as the Matsutake Express, or by air. With a short self-life of just one-to-four days, the local supply chain must work seamlessly. Foragers go out picking in the morning, ready to present their quarry to dealers by the afternoon. The dealers then take the mushrooms to one of Yunnan’s specialist wholesale markets, like the one in Nanhua outside of Kunming, which trades 200 tons per day during the season.
More than 2,600 kilometers across the country, in China’s eastern coastal city of Shanghai, Stefan Stiller is looking forward to receiving his next batch of mushrooms directly from Yunnan. The German owner of fine dining European restaurant Taian Table flies the fungi in to ensure their quality and freshness. Last season he served stuffed morels alongside venison loin, porcini with scallops in a Japanese-style dashi sauce, and sautéed chanterelles with shallots, chives and lobster.
“I find the quality very, very good, but I think all the very best mushrooms probably get eaten in Yunnan,” says Stiller from his sleek open kitchen and dining room. “I went to Kunming once and saw a huge variety of mushrooms I’ve never seen before in the market. They probably only have local names, but I’d love to experiment with them one day.”
While many of Yunnan’s mushrooms are used for cooking, some are more commonly processed into medicine to sooth a wide variety of ailments. Dr. Natasha Lee, a specialist in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture, touts the properties of many Yunnan varieties. Cordyceps, known as “winter insect summer grass” in Chinese, is a parasitic fungus that infects a host insect and sprouts a grass-like mushroom from its corpse. Despite its somewhat creepy MO, cordyceps, typically found in Yunnan’s humid rainforests and Tibet’s Himalayan foothills, is highly prized and was at one time selling for more than twice the price of gold per gram. Lee recommends it to her patients with respiratory problems or generally weakened immune systems.
Dinner-plate-sized lingzhi, also known as ganoderma or reishi in English, are also given to people with lung and heart issues, while houtoujin, aka lion’s mane, is commonly ground into pill form for stomach and digestion issues. “All these uses are laid out in the ancient texts, which categorized thousands of herbs and foods hundreds of years ago,” explains Lee. “There were no labs back then, so it’s quite a mystery how they figured it all out, but as a student or doctor of TCM, we take the texts as gospel.”
But food and medicine are not always so mutually exclusive in China. A TCM discipline known as yaoshan has promoted medicinal diets since the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE). Ingredients can, for example, be categorized as “heaty,” helping to expel dampness and afflictions such a rheumatism and the flu, or “cooling,” quelling heat and treating skin irritations, sore throats and heartburn.
As far as Dr. Lee is concerned, the wellness industries of the wider world are missing a trick. “In the West, they have quite a wide selection of mushrooms in some health food shops but they don’t market them in terms of their health properties,” she laments. “The Western world doesn’t realize that every food has a property and we can feed ourselves well.”
Crystal Wilde is a freelance journalist and founder of Sparky Content, an editorial and marketing consultancy based in Shanghai. She has been living in and writing about Asia for more than 12 years.