Braised mushrooms (mun doong qwoo)

Chinese dried mushrooms, also called black, winter mushrooms, or shiitake, as they are known in Japan, can vary broadly in quality and price. For everyday cooking I generally use inexpensive ones, which have thin brown caps and a soaking time of only about thirty minutes. However for this dish, since the mushrooms are the featured ingredient, ideally one should use high-quality mushrooms, such as fa qwoo; this name will not appear on the package in English. These can easily cost over fifty dollars a pound. The color of the caps is not as black as that of the less expensive variety, and they are much thicker in both appearance and texture. They require three to four hours to soak, and their flavor is meatier and more intense. People who know mushrooms can judge their quality just by looking at the caps. Fa qwoo caps have deep cracks and are said to resemble flowers. In presenting this dish, always place the caps on the platter stem-side down. Cooking fa qwoo is reserved for special occasions.

4 Chinese dried oysters
20 medium Chinese dried mushrooms, preferably fa qwoo, about 8 ounces
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 slices ginger
2 tablespoons oyster flavored sauce
8 slices (2 by 1 by 1/4 inch) Smithfield ham
Cilantro sprigs, optional

Rinse the oysters in cold water. In a small bowl, soak the oysters in 1/2 cup cold water for 3 to 4 hours, or until soft. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid.

In a medium bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1 1/3 cups cold water and sugar for 3 to 4 hours, or until softened (less time if inexpensive mushrooms are used). Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard stems, leaving the caps whole.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the oil, ginger, oysters, and mushrooms, and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the oyster sauce, reduce heat to medium, and cook 1 minute. Add the reserved mushroom and oyster liquids and ham slices, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 30 minutes. Check the saucepan occasionally to make sure there is just enough liquid to simmer the mushrooms. Add a little water if necessary. Cook until only about 2 tablespoons of liquid is left in the pan and the mushrooms are tender. Discard the oysters. Place the mushroom caps and sauce on a platter and garnish with cilantro sprigs if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

Taken from Grace Young’s book “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” with permission. © Grace Young. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-684-84739-6.