[SCMP Column] China's Mushroom Explosion

December 08, 2017

There are only a few occasions in my life when I have truly terrified my long-suffering daughters, but one of them was after a cold and muddy mushroom-hunt in the UK almost exactly 30 years ago.

Back then, I was a passionate amateur mycologist. The house was littered with odd, somberly-illustrated books about fungi. Most weekends I would don wellington boots and stride off into obscure woodlands in the counties around London. The musty mystery and elusiveness of them fascinated me.

So often, I would find nothing. But what a thrill to stumble across a colony of majestic parasol mushrooms, or a huge cauliflower-like sparassis erupting from a tree stump, or a sprinkling of chanterelles almost-successfully passing themselves off as scattered autumn leaves. So fascinating too to find tree-ears sprouting from the branches of elder trees – though I always found it embarrassing that the normal deeply racist English term for them was “Jews’ Ears”.
I would often take my daughters off into the forest with me. It was good autumn exercise, and was better than MacDonalds or a shopping mall. I think they begrudgingly enjoyed the eccentric adventures into damp misty forests. They certainly had no objection to me photographing whatever mushrooms we found. But anxiety rose whenever I began picking those in good enough condition to add to dinner.

On this particular day, I had alarmed them by picking a load of boletus. Those are the ones with spongy spores underneath, rather than the conventional gills we see on mushrooms in a supermarket. Most boletus are fine to eat, but I had never stumbled on this exact kind before. Undaunted, I sliced them and threw them into the frying pan with a generous lump of butter. Before our eyes, these innocent yellow-brown boletus were transformed to a glorious and very shocking turquoise colour, before gradually reverting to yellow-brown.

My daughters were by this stage in a panic, and certainly had no intention to eat any themselves. But I, refusing to be daunted, dropped them onto my plate. They were aghast. So to make peace, I slipped a couple of slices onto my side-plate, and said: “Don’t worry. If I collapse, just show these to the doctor and they will know what antidote I need.”

Even today, my daughters recall the trauma of those awful following moments, when they truly did expect me to keel over onto the floor.

Needlesstosay, I was fine. And the boletus were delicious. But the memory reminds me at this misty autumnal time of year of the timidity of most western folks over tasting any but the blandest of button mushrooms. Of around 140,000 fungus species worldwide, with only around 14,000 that have been properly described, there are over 2,300 mushrooms worldwide that can claim to be both edible and tasty, but for most Europeans or Americans there is only one that is consumed – the boring agaricus bisporus that the French first started cultivating in caves back in the 1600s. The rest are feared as poisonous, psychedelic, or just plain ghoulish.

Not so in Asia. Which was one of my great excitements when I first settled in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. At last, as an intrepid mycologist, I imagined myself arriving among fellow-spirits, whom I could join on fungus hunts in Hong Kong, or in forests in southern China.

But what a disappointment. While Hong Kong people consume mushrooms often and in many varieties, the idea of going foraging for them in the wild was seen as peculiar in the extreme. As deeply urban people, most of my Hong Kong friends had a profound distrust of wild countryside. Mushrooms were fine to eat, but getting them to the table was a commercial, not a communal, experience.

Over time, I have let go of my naïve enthusiasm for forest foraging, and have come to terms with the reality that growing mushrooms in this part of the world is inevitably as industrial a process as most modern farming. And as usual, you quickly realise that China – as in so many areas of enterprise – leads the world, and has done so for centuries.

Chinese pottery and poems mention mushrooms back through the millennia, but it was supposed to be Wu San Kwung who first began mushroom cultivation, in Zhejiang in the Sung dynasty about 1000 years ago. Instead of focussing on button mushrooms, he grew shiitake (or xiang yu in Chinese) by impregnating logs with spores. Even today, Zhejiang is one of the world’s leading centres for mushroom cultivation.

While China is today not the world’s leading exporter of edible mushrooms (that title goes to Poland with Netherlands close behind) it is by far the biggest producer. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), China in 2014 produced more than 7.6m tonnes of mushrooms of one kind or another – three quarters of total world production amounting to 10.3m tonnes.

And growth of the business on the Mainland is nothing short of phenomenal – with some species, growth has been 18-20 per cent a year. In 1983, Japan accounted for 82 per cent of world production of Shiitake mushrooms. Today, China accounts for 89 per cent, and Japan’s share has dwindled to 7.3 per cent.

And Chinese mushroom farmers have diversified ambitiously – much to the disdain and alarm of French and Italian truffle foragers. Since 2013, Chinese farmers have been artificially cultivating truffles on a large scale, with Yunnan alone producing 200 tonnes in 2015. Exports that year were worth US$1.5bn.

Beyond edible mushrooms, Chinese interest has also been keenly focused on the medicinal value of mushrooms, with majestic ling zhi (ganoderma lucidum) and the creepy zombie-like caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis, or d?ng chóng xià c?o) fetching prices to match Italy’s truffles, or Japan’s matsutake.

While I still quaintly hanker after those innocent wild foraging days, when capturing mushrooms was an amateur pastime done as much for fun as nutrition – or to terrorize innocent daughters – I suspect that China’s day as an industrial-scale cultivator of a wide range of fungi is only just beginning.

Evidence across the world suggests that demand infinitely outstrips supply. Despite the infamous difficulty in controlling mushroom cultivation, the limit on future supply seems not to be the availability of land or funds to grow mushrooms but the efficient control of supply chains for this infuriatingly perishable product. This can only be a matter of time, and healthy for us too.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.
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