Delicacies of Changbai Forests
In Chinese, there is a term for “delicacy” which consists of two characters— shanzhen (山 shan, “mountain”, and 珍 zhen, “treasure”. What was meant by this term has differed throughout history, but now shanzhen refers to wild herbs, mushrooms and other food
The Most Famous Fungus in the Changbai Mountains
In Changbai Mountains, as autumn comes, countless small “umbrellas”—honey fungus— cover the tree trunks. People are still not able to grow this fungus in artificial environments, such as in a greenhouse. In Changbai Mountains, and throughout Northeast China, the honey fungus is probably the most well-known mushroom and an indispensable ingredient in many local dishes.
In the middle of March, Changbai Mountains are still under an uninterrupted blanket of snow and look very forbidding for any visitor thinks about venturing out here in early spring. However, it is not long before the snowpack starts to slowly melt and the icy wind, which a few weeks ago cut you to the bone, would start to feel a little bit milder, carrying just a hint of warmth.
One sunny and warm afternoon, I went into the forest and, with my hands, cleared off a patch of sticky snow layer. Doing so, I was surprised to spot a bright green speck underneath. Curled up like a foetus under the snow blanket, a nascent plant was already eager to pierce the shell of the snow and surge towards the sun, to have its birth baptized by the dew and the rain. The locals were also looking forward to this, just as eagerly.
By the end of the long, dark winter, fresh greens have long become a rarity on the dinner tables of the people living in the mountain villages. The spring is now here and the locals, sacks and hoes ready, are scrambling to be the first into the forest, to reap the best of Changbai’s harvest.
Timing Is Key
Shi Yongfu comes from Songjianghe Town of Jilin Province. In his hometown, he has a reputation as a master of seeking out shanzhen . The 64-year-old is a veteran of “going to the forest for a look-see”, as the locals call the practice of collecting wild herbs, berries and mushrooms.
The exact meaning of shanzhen has varied over time. In Changbai Mountains there are four general categories— herbs, berries, mushrooms and wild animals, such as pheasants and frogs. Nowadays
The Hill Celery
In Changbai Mountains, hill celery is found on almost every slope covered by weeds. Although similar to parsley, the hill celery is more nutritious, making it a natural gift for people living in the mountains. In the wild, it can be collected when its stem is over 20 centimeters long.
Statistic of Edible Plants in Mt. Changbai The Balloon Flower
The balloon flower, also known as the bellflower, features by its attractive, purple flower. Local people on Changbai Mountains use its root as medicine and also for making pickles.
shanzhen no longer includes animals, especially rare ones, as people have become more aware of the need to protect the environment, and so the meaning of
shanzhen has become limited to wild plants and mushrooms.
People who know Shi Yongfu well, remember his favorite rhyme about gathering in the forest: “Don’t be lazy to look down, and tasty treats, they shall be found”. For the locals, the vast forests of Changbai Mountains are a bottomless store of such “nature’s treats”—over 700 different edible plants have been recorded here, found both in the woods but also on the edges of the forest. The choices of what to gather change with seasons, but spring is the best season to go searching for what forest has to offer.
Shi Yongfu knows that you must know exactly when to go and collect the herbs to get the tastiest and the most nutritious quarry. In mid-march, it is the season for shepherd’s purse ( Capsellabursa-pas
toris ) and kinds of dandelion. Shepherd’s purse can be used for making soup, stir-fried and also used for making dumpling stuffing. When the tender shoots of dandelion appear above ground, you can not only collect these, but also dig up the plant’s fleshy root. Dandelion root is very rich in protein and vitamins, and in the old days, it would save the locals from star- vation during the times of calamities and disasters.
Come April and Chinese angelica tree ( Araliaelata ) starts to sprout. This shrub, which bristles from head to toe with hard thorns, is actually a great delicacy. Its sprouts can be fried together with eggs, or after having been coated in flour, or just straight out, with nothing added. The sprouts can be eaten until they grow to about 15 centimeters, but leave it too late in the season and the once tender sprouts turn into a hard, unpalatable shrub, practically overnight.
Another local favorite is a plant called hill celery
(Os teri cum si eb old ii) and it looks very much like its close relative, parsley. This uniquely tasting plant is extremely common and can be found wherever a patch of grass can grow. The dishes that it’s young leaves are used in— dumpling stuffing and fried meat, are well known local delicacies. Moreover, its harvesting period is very long—on the warmer southern slopes it matures and becomes inedible earlier in the season, but at the same time, on colder northern slopes, it is just starting to sprout and you can collect its young leaves for yet another month.
In May, fern starts appearing in the mountains. Large patches of ground, from a few dozen to several
Osmunda cinnamomea hundred mu (one mu equals 666 square meters) in size, become dotted with young fronds of fern, which, before they uncurl, look like tiny, tightly clenched fists. Once the fronds mature and open up, the taste is already gone. In May in the mountains of Changbai the yard of every village house is covered in drying bracken fronds, which will then be stored for the long winter ahead.
The forests of Changbai Mountains support a myriad of plant species, which, to outsider’s untrained eye seem almost indistinguishable, considering the connections and relations between different plant species is as bewildering as trying to figure out who is who in a large family. The locals, who grew up here, can name every single plant, and this vast body of knowledge, a vital adaptation to a harsh environment, has been built up over generations, passed down from one to the next.
Come June and the markets are filled with the crops grown locally and shanzhen disappears from the dinner tables of the local villagers, allowing the wild plants a respite to grow undisturbed in the depth of the forest. Also, at this time, mushrooms start to appear, all at once and all across the mountains, as if in competition who sees the daylight first. Mushrooms are found everywhere from the coniferous forests to the alpine tun-
dra above 2,100 meters, growing both on the thick black topsoil and on the trunks of fallen trees. Go into the forest or cross a meadow at this time, and a brightly covered mushroom will immediately spring into your field of vision. Often growing in patches, and in every landscape, they are far easier to spot than the edible plants.
In summer, Dr. Fan Yuguang, an expert on local fungi, goes into the mountains every day for fieldwork. He tells me that Changbai Mountains were declared a protected area a long time ago, thus preserving it as a prime habitat for fungi. So much so that Dr. Fan, without fail, finds a completely new species, or records a variety new to this locality, every year.
According to Dr. Fan, fungi are a vital part of the forest ecosystem. They form a remarkable symbiotic relationship with plants—plants synthesize and transport nutrients used by the fungi, which, in return, using their extensive mycelium, boost the plant’s capacity to absorb water and minerals. With this in mind, it is obvious that fungi play a key role in the overall health of the forests.
Shi Yongfu, however, does not see fungi from such a biological perspective. To him, nevertheless, they are equally remarkable, but for the universality in the kitchen.
With so many species and varieties of mushrooms out there, safely picking the right ones is a real science. First, you must know where to look—the soils in coniferous forests are poor, and so mushrooms are few; for richer pickings, you should go to broadleaved forests of elm, aspen and oak. Also, different mushrooms grow and are picked at different times of the season. Around the middle of June, golden oyster mushrooms( Pl eurotu sci tri no pile at us) appear, their clusters covering the trunks of aspen trees, but it is at the end of summer and the start of autumn, when mushrooms become the most abundant. This is the season for honey fungus ( Armillaria mellea ) and shiitake mushroom ( Lentinulaedodes ), two of Changbai’s most prized species. The exotic-looking, and highly sought-after lion’s ma ne mushroom( He
rici um erin ace us ), which grow son dead branches of living trees, also appears at the onset of autumn. Later in the season when trees start shedding leaves and the ground gets the first frosts, the multi-levelled clusters of tile-shaped caps of later oyster mushroom (Pa nell us se rot in us) emerge, ready to be picked.
In Changbai Mountains, while many species of mushrooms are edible, but about 100 are poisonous.
Many fungi of the genus Amanita contain phallotoxin and amatoxin, which, when absorbed through the digestive tract, can cause, amongst other effects,
necrosis of liver. Because many poisonous mushrooms have very bright coloration, the locals consider all brightly colored mushrooms poisonous, but this folk wisdom does not always hold true. For example, take Caesar’s mushroom ( Amanitacaesarea ), which grows in clusters in oak forests. It belongs to
Amanita genus, and its cap is very brightly colored, and so people generally give it a wide berth, thinking that it must be highly poisonous. Only those in the know are aware that it is perfectly edible and has a delicious, delicate taste.
In winter, every household in a village has several strings of black, like raven’s feather, dried mushrooms hanging from the eves. These dried mushrooms, when soaked in water by the housewives, would emit a thick, warm, musty scent, which then fills the house. They can be added to chicken soup or made into a stew on slow fire, and the smell of the thick chicken soup flavored by these fragrant mushrooms is a treasured childhood memory for many natives of Northeast China.
In August and September, autumn gently and slowly nudges summer out of Changbai’s forests, which have by then turned into one large fruit orchard. The harvest of wild fruit includes Amur grape ( Vitisamurensis ), Ussurian pear ( Pyrus ussuriensis ) and Siberian crab apple ( Malusbaccata ). The wild fruit all try to outdo each other in colors, their striking, elegant blues, purples, reds and oranges make them look like precious gems which are just waiting to be picked.
This abundance of wild fruit, out of which more than 20 species are edible, is due not only to the yet