July 27th, 2012
The confusion came from the fact that they refered to it as a flower. “It’s called 虫草花 (chóng cǎo huā),” the waitress told us when we first saw the thick, stringy, orange strands at a restaurant south of Kunming. “It’s some kind of flower,” my friend Arianna reported back, relying on the literal translation of the word hua, “but I have no idea what.” We posited that maybe it was only a part of a flower, the stamens of some tropical lily, perhaps. But in the end we didn’t really care what it was, because the important thing was that the orange strands were delicious. We had them prepared as a soup, boiled in some kind of fragrant broth that lent them a mellow, warm flavor much like that of a chanterelle. Whatever they were, I was in love.
A year later, Josh and I found them again, this time stir-fried with slivers of local ham in a Yi minority restaurant a few blocks from our apartment in Kunming. And this time, we were able to translate the name. Unfortunately, “insect grass flower,” wasn’t a more hopeful moniker. But I am married to a very resourceful man, and after a few weeks he had identified the plant: cordyceps militaris, a type of fungus that does, indeed, grow up through the ground like grass after it roots in the soil as a parasite on moth pupae.
Cordyceps militaris is actually quite popular throughout China, but while we see it in Yunnan in its fresh form, it’s almost always sold and used dried. A relative of the famous cordyceps sinensis—a miracle drug of a fungus used to treat everything from infertility to cancer—the militaris is also thought to have mysterious healthful properties and is often used it soup alongside other natural cures like wolfberries and red dates.
This year when the militaris showed up in the market, I set out to try to recreate the soup that I had two years ago that had made such an impression on me. Alas, the version I made was quite flavorless. Perhaps it was the fault of the broth itself (maybe a better, more time-consuming broth would give the soup enough flavor to make up for the very mild character of the fungus), or perhaps we just got a batch without much flavor; they did seem suspiciously cheap when we bough them. Fortunately, they were better sautéed—so much like my favorite chanterelles, in fact, that I opted to cook them in butter and serve them over eggs. Not a very Chinese dish, I’ll grant you, but a delicious one nonetheless.
Photos: Josh Wand (2)