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The Grilled Matsutake in Shangri-La

(Shangri-La is the biggest producer of matsutake exported to Japan)

Mushroom is a specialty of Yunnan, but if you haven’t tried it, you won’t realise it. My first experience for trying matsutake happened two years ago in Shangri-La which is the biggest producer and exporter of matsutake.

In rainy summer, matsutakes sprout in the alpine forests of Shangri-La. Boasting high nutrition, this kind of rare and costly mushroom is the favourite of Japanese.

I and my friends liked shopping in several local markets of Shangri-La, because we all knew that locals would bring their specialties to the markets for sale. And we liked the way they did business, different from shopping boxes like the outlets of Carrefour and Walmart in big cities such as Kunming. 

We went to Jinqiao Market at midday. We were very interested in local produces: apples, unnamed wild berries, Yak-butter, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and mushrooms. Liu, one of my friends, suddenly caught sight of a plastic bag of matsutake sold by a Tibetan woman. “Matsutake is normally expensive; and those for sale in Jinqiao Market are not so costly, around 20 yuan/jin (500 grams),” he said. Liu was right, because he always stayed with Japanese as an interpreter. I know that matsutake of China is most of the time exported to Japan, with a very high price. “This kind of mushroom must be classified before exported: one kind is ‘top quality’, with unopened canopy; the other one is ‘low quality’, with opened canopy. The former is the most expensive, and the latter is nearly ‘worthless’ from the chef’s viewpoint.”

“Why not get some and try them for barbecue tonight”, said Zi, another friend of mine.

We bought some, of course the “low-quality” kind, bargaining with local sellers. After supper, we took our picks to a street, several hundred yards from our hotel in the town. The street was not so busy at daytime, but flanked by barbecue stalls (makeshift tents) in the evening, luring many locals and tourists to enjoy grilled foods. We made a point to “roast” matsutake, although there were many choices, from sea food to alpine yak beef.

We finalised a stall, and the owner ushered us in and began to fire up a charcoal brasier-because we got there too early. We told him what we wanted, and left the mushrooms to his wife. Ok, it was a little chilly in the evening in Shangri-La because of the altitude, despite of the mid summer; and luckily, the brasier was just there to warm us up.

The matsutakes were sliced, and given back to us to be sizzled on the grills. The taste was not bad; but to me, it tasted not much different from many other kinds of mushrooms. I never understand why Japanese like them; maybe, as Liu told us, matsutake contains at least eight kinds of amino acid needed by humans to be “in good shape”.

As a matter of fact, in the town of Shangri-La, many stores, where high-pitched Tibetan songs blare out, have ubiquitous ads for dried matsutake. These stores are patronised by lots of Chinese tourists who know well that matsutake is the very specialty of Shangri-La.

(Sparassis crisp, locally called “gan ba jun”, is another major mushroom specialty of Yunnan Province)

Assorted edible mushrooms are in season for the time being across Yunnan Province. They can be farmed, and can be picked from the wild forests too. Fried, barbecued, hot-pot, stewed with chicken, and sometimes some kinds can be eaten raw. "Gluttons" always have high expectations for several big gourmet events, such as Yimen Wild Edible Mushroom Fair just finished on 26 July, and gourmet festivals in the counties of Nanhua and Shiping to be kicked off in early August.

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