Braised mushrooms for the holidays

Braised mushroomsLooking for sides for your holiday dinners? Consider braised mushrooms. This versatile side will complement almost any holiday headliner such as turkey, prime rib, or roast pork.

I tasted this dish in Luodai, an easily accessible Hakka village, just outside of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in China. About 90 percent of the twenty three thousand residents are Hakka. The town is home to several large guild complexes, built with donations from Hakka from different provinces of China. These guilds serve as social halls with restaurants and meeting rooms. We dined at huge Hakka feasts at these guilds. Mushrooms appeared in all our meals. Hakka chefs briefly braised the local mountain mushrooms in a rich broth to emphasize their natural umami essence.



Braised Mountain Mushrooms

Use an assortment of mushrooms. Your farmers’ market or Asian grocery store will likely have a good selection.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

12 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms (oyster, king oyster, shiitake, button, beech, or enoki (limit enoki to 2 to 3 ounces)

1 small leek

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

8 thin slices fresh ginger, lightly crushed

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon cornstarch


1. Trim off and discard the ends and any soft of discolored portions from mushrooms. If mushrooms are fairly clean gently brush off any debris. Otherwise lightly rinse mushrooms, drain well, and pat dry. Remove and discard stems of shiitake mushrooms. If the oyster and shiitake mushrooms are wider than 3 inches, cut in half through the caps. Slice the king oyster and button mushrooms lengthwise about 1/2-inch thick. If desired, cut the long king oyster mushrooms in half crosswise. Separate clumps of beech and enoki mushrooms into clusters about 1/2 inch wide and leave whole. Trim off and discard root end and tough dark green top from the leek. Cut leek in half lengthwise and rinse well under water, separating layers to remove any grit. Thinly sliced the leek crosswise.

2. Place a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread. Add the garlic, ginger, and leek, stir-frying until leek is limp, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms (except enoki) and stir-fry until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broth, wine, soy sauce, salt, and white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring often until mushrooms are limp, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the water and cornstarch. Add cornstarch mixture to pan and stir until sauce boils, about 30 seconds. Stir in enoki mushrooms, (if using). Transfer to a serving bowl.

Luodai: ancient Hakka town

luodai lionJust outside of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, lies the ancient Hakka town of Luodai. More than 90% of the 23,000 residents are Hakka. Sichuan, a province in southwest China, is home to more than 3 million Hakkas.

ground red chilesAlthough, the government remodeled the town with picturesque Qing-style features to attract tourists, you can find the old village hidden in the back streets. Basins of crushed dried red chiles, mountain mushrooms, and vegetables fill the marketplace. Along the dirt pathways and lanes, small shops carry out their business. A woman delivers disks of coal for cooking.

Guangdong GuildThroughout the newer renovated section, tea houses, gardens, and small shops line stone-paved streets. Several large guild complexes built by Hakkas from different provinces serve as social halls. In my research tour in 2005, we ate at two of these Hakka guilds, the Jiangxi and Guangdong.

The Guangdong Guild was built in 1747 by the Hakkas. The host’s ancestors are from Meizhou, the same area as my own family.

Although the Hakka maintained much of their traditional cuisine, in migration they often adapted to their new homes, adding different ingredients, adjusting to local tastes, and creating new dishes.  In this province, known for it spicy chile-fired cuisine, the Sichuan influences assert themselves immediately in our meals.

steamed fish with green onionsCompare steamed fish served in two different provinces. In Meizhou, in the center of the Hakka heartland in Guangdong province, the fish is steamed with just a bit of soy sauce and green onions (recipe on page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). The natural flavor of the fish predominates.

steamed fish with chilesIn Luodai in Sichuan province, the fish is steamed under a avalanche of fresh green peppercorns and sliced green chiles. The taste is definitely hot and spicy as many dishes are in Sichuan.

Our Hakka host explains that although the traditional Hakka flavor profile is not spicy, they added the chile pepper to their cooking to match the climate. Not all the dishes on our table were fiery hot; some emphasized natural flavors and balanced the chile-laden dishes. However, the meals in Sichuan were far more spicy than those we ate in Guangdong.

Even in China, we see the effects of migration in a simple steamed fish. As I travel more, I see the effect of migration and environment on the food we eat.