Humans have long been fascinated by mushrooms, regarding them variously as gifts from the gods (and a way of communing with them), temptations offered by supernatural beings, homes to elves and fairies and a miracle cure for cancer.
Many varieties of fungi are found in the forests and hills of Yunnan province, where they grow wild from July to September. The mountain treasures are more than just food, too. Mushroom importer Winnie Wong Sze-man, director of food importer Luen Kee Hoo, says fungi have medicinal properties.
She became interested in them after sourcing Chinese matsutake mushrooms to ease her mother's cancer symptoms.
'When my mother fell ill with cancer in 2000, our doctor suggested matsutake mushrooms to keep her immune system up,' says Wong. 'Back then, they were difficult and expensive to source. When I explored importing fresh wild mushrooms, I realised there was a niche market in Hong Kong.'
She's been importing wild mushrooms for her business for more than five years, and says wild mushroom mania in Hong Kong started during the Sars outbreak in 2003.
'At that time, people started realising that a healthy diet translated to healthy living,' says Wong. 'Mushrooms are high in protein and give a wide range of essential amino acids. They're low in fat and high in fibre and have several groups of vitamins. For instance, matsutake is rich in vitamin B and lifts the immune system.'
In April, Wong opened J's Garden, a shop in Sheung Wan specialising in wild mushrooms and their byproducts.
Due to the scarcity of wild mushrooms, the difficulty of finding them and the costs of bringing them to Hong Kong, they don't come cheap, ranging from about HK$35 per 100 grams for porcini to HK$130 for matsutake. Most mushrooms from Yunnan grow on a 1,500-metre-high plateau near Lijiang, and the rare matsutake is found next to pine trees 4,000 metres above sea level. The termite mushroom grows inside termite nests. To cope with growing demand, J's Garden stocks 10 types of dried and frozen wild mushrooms year-round.
In season now are varieties such as matsutake, porcini (white, yellow, red, purple and black), neungee, saffron bolete, chanterelle, imperial mushrooms, termite mushrooms, fried-chicken mushrooms and ganbajun.
Wong advises wrapping fresh mushrooms in paper towels then storing them in paper bags in the fridge for up to a week. Dried fungi should also be kept in a fridge if not in sealed packs.
Wong is keen to spread her enjoyment of mushrooms and writes a monthly newsletter sharing mushroom lore and recipes with the 1,300 members of her 'club' (customers who spend more than HK$500 over several purchases).
Many of the mushrooms found in China are related to types found elsewhere, and although most people find it difficult to tell them apart, experts can detect differences in colour, taste and texture.
'Italian, French and Japanese cuisine have influenced the popularity and the price of certain mushrooms, but comparing [Chinese mushrooms to others] is difficult because they are different,' says Wong. Nevertheless, she exports matsutake to Japan, morels to France, porcini to Italy and the Chinese variety of black truffles to Europe, the Middle East and other countries in Asia.
One ardent fan of Chinese mushrooms is Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers chef de cuisine Chan Sui-kei. To ensure the best harvest, he makes an annual trek up mountains to more than 2,000 metres above sea level to dig up matsutake and truffles. Chan also likes morels and porcini, which are not common in Chinese cuisine, and neungees, yellow neungees, chanterelles, wild wood ears and fresh bamboo fungus.
Every year since 2004, Chan has created a seasonal mushroom menu that includes more than 20 varieties.
'Hongkongers are keen on matsutake, termite mushrooms, porcini and chanterelles,' says Chan. 'The best way to cook fresh mushrooms is to sautee them with a little bit of chilli, whereas the dried ones are good for boiling in soup.'
Chinese University of Hong Kong biology professor Chiu Siu-wai says: 'For some ethnicities in China, consuming wild harvested mushrooms is a tradition, such as consuming psilocybe [mushrooms that contain powerful hallucinogens] as a means to communicate with God.'
The methods of preserving and cooking mushrooms are as varied as the species themselves, says Chiu.
'Fleshy mushrooms can be consumed raw, boiled in soups and in dishes with other ingredients,' he says. 'Hard, leathery mushrooms such as lingzhi and polypores often simply need to be soaked in hot water for consumption.
'Jew's ears and cloud's ear can simply be sun-dried. Shiitake which has a fleshy cap but a hard, fibrous stem can be smoked, sun-dried, oven-dried and used fresh.'
Although wild mushrooms are common in Hong Kong's green areas, the professor warns against foraging for them. The Chinese University lists 140 mushroom species in the SAR, 31 of which are poisonous. The others are edible, although some are so unpleasant tasting that one wouldn't want to eat them.
'It's not advisable to pick wild mushrooms in Hong Kong,' says Chiu. 'There is a risk of contamination as the territory is small and there's intensive human activity that can easily spread pollutants to nature.'
There's no scientific data to prove that wild mushrooms are better in terms of nutrition than those that are cultivated, but that hasn't dampened health-conscious Hongkongers' enthusiasm for naturally occurring fungi.
Housewife Ra Chiu, a regular customer at J's Garden, shops there every week during the harvest season, spending about HK$300 each time.
'I have slowly learned about wild mushrooms and their value over the years,' she says. 'My family is health-conscious and we don't eat much meat. I find that fresh wild mushrooms are value for money.
'Before, I would find them only in upscale supermarkets, but that's changing as more people are seeking fresh, natural products.'