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

China Scenic - - TASTE - By Ruan Renyi Pho­to­graphs by Zhou Yao, and as cred­ited

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.

Multi-pur­pose Mush­rooms

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.

Au­tumn Or­chard

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

Os­ter­icum sieboldii

Athyrium mul­ti­den­ta­tum

Os­munda cin­namo­mea

Neoathyrium crenu­lato

Heri­cium eri­naceus

Auric­u­laria au­ric­ula

Hy­gropho­rus lu­co­rum

Suil­lus gre­villei

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