Umami Memories

Being Chinese, I was brought up on bowls of rice and various stir fried dishes. The technique was always more or less the same, hot oil with ginger and/or garlic; thinly sliced meat marinated in soy sauce and corn starch; and perfectly sliced vegetables. What made each dish unique and special was the texture. One of my very favorite dishes is sliced pork with bamboo and wood ear mushrooms. Every ingredient is cut to about the same size, so each and every bite is a soft and meaty combination, with a satisfying crunch from the mushrooms.

“Mushrooms crunch?” you might ask.

Why yes, they can! Wood ear mushrooms have a firm, gelatinous texture that are a far cry from the gentle give of a button mushroom. They come dried, little black and gray slivers sealed in a pouch. Soak them in a bath of water for a few minutes, and they’re good as new. Or I’ve also found them moist, black and fresh at Asian grocery stores.

On the other end of the spectrum is the shitake mushroom. As a child, I often took advantage of my seeming innocence and fished out the best parts of a stew. On special occassions, my family would go for a “hot pot,” which is a huge clay pot brimming with broth, vegetables, tofu, fish, bean thread noodles, you name it. Something about the hot steam, the smell, instant comfort food. In this pot, if you fish around enough and luck is on your side, you’ll reel in a shitake dripping with juices. Now these mushrooms, which also come dried or fresh, have a completely different texture than the wood ear mushroom. They’re chewier, meatier, and they impart a wonderful, belly-filling umami essence to the hot pot. There usually aren’t that many shitakes thrown in a hot pot, perhaps that’s what made finding them such a childhood pleasure. These days, I’m more likely to place the morsel on my loved one’s plate, the satisfaction of seeing them savor the bite is almost as fulfilling as eating it myself. Almost.

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