Photo: Jeremy Cherfas (flickr)
As I lean in, a few local Yunnanese look up at me with suspicion. And then, it hits me: mushrooms!
Mushrooms, or mógu, are this mountainside’s moneymaker.
After the rains beckon the little fungi into fruiting, the Bai and Yii take to the hills and scour the earth, filling their multipurpose baskets one sprout at a time. The treasure is then carted into town and, come evening time, the trade can begin.
Men (mostly) separate out each type of edible mushroom and inspect them with expert hands, rubbing off bits of soil and looking at their gills and spongy underbellies. For what, I don’t know. I mean, they’re already fungus, right?
Next they are weighed in groups according to type, tossed into their proper crates, and finally, the cash (i.e. yuan) gets handed over to the foragers.
One of my new friends who has been in Shaxi the entire summer turns to me saying, “some of these women earn almost their entire year’s income during the mushroom season here.” She points to a crate of rather stout, phallic-looking ones: “Those ones fetch the highest price.”
Legend Has It…
Who would pay a small fortune for spore-bearing fungus? As I turn to my friends to inquire, the answer is already percolating to the surface: the Japanese.
Legend has it, there are two reasons for the Japanese lust for this fungus. One, the little erect guys are a species that, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, grew despite the devastation inflicted on the landscape by the catastrophic blast.
Ever since, this particular mushroom has been a national sign of good luck — so much so that it is also imported en masse from southwest China.
The second legend is really more of a little sensorial factoid. One of the mushrooms traded here supposedly grows at the bottom of the tea tree and is infused with the tea tree flavor, which makes it both delectable and collectible to Japanese and Chinese alike. It also, of course, piques my gastronomic interest to the max.
Looking into it, Yunnan province is actually home to the largest trove of wild mushrooms in the entire world, with at least 800 edible species in the province alone (now you can go ahead and check on that one).
Whether the tales are mushroom myth or fungal fact, the night trade tickles my fancy so much I can hardly sleep.
Have I really clandestinely arrived in a small village that happens to be the epicenter of the world’s mushroom trade?
I turn to my new friends, a crazed look of adventure in my eyes. I can see already that one of my counterparts shares my lusty look. We MUST have, no, we MUST forage some of these famed mógu and see what all the stinkhorn’s about. Tomorrow will be our mission: Mission Mógu.
To be continued…
- Part 1 of Leigh Bush’s Blog: Mógu Mania: Chinese Culinary Adventures
- Part 3: Mógu Mania: Mission Mógu