Monday, September 4, 2017

A soup made of silk, or so it seems

The beautiful mushroomy object known as the silver ear fungus can be utterly amazing when done right, and distinctly weird when not. 

To be honest, I never really liked it much, since it tended to be crunchy (not in a good way) and as close to annoying as an ingredient can get without being totally obnoxious.

One day, though, an older Chinese friend from Zhejiang told me that there was a simple secret to making it, for it turned these dried, plastic-looking balls into ethereal silk. I asked what it was, and she said, “Soak them for three days, change the water every day, and then slowly poach them for about eight hours.”

I went home and did just that. 
Simple, yet divine

And she was right on the money.

Since then, I’ve proudly been a silver ear devotee, as well as something on the order of a amateur silver ear pusher, as I’m always trying to turn people on to this. And that’s why I’m here today, talking about something you might not have ever heard of, and on the off chance that you have, you were most likely never quite impressed and and have been wondering what the fuss was all about.

Silver ears are eaten for their texture and texture only, as they are completely bland. However, no one ever cooks them correctly, which leads to that aforementioned annoying crunchiness. These need time and patience to make their innate beauty shine, for when soaked and slowly poached into submission, they are breathtakingly wonderful.

Those plasticky, brainlike objects eventually evolve into fluttery bits that melt on the tongue. Really, in their final form, silver ears end up as little more than whispers floating around your mouth, which is why things like small cubes of pear and ruby little wolfberries are needed to ground this elegant dessert soup to the earthly realm. Plus, the silver ears release a soothing thickener into the liquid that thickens it almost like cornstarch, but it's more like fairydust than your average binder. I know I'm being obtuse here, but once you try this you will understand.

You should know, too, that this fungus is considered therapeutic and filled with collagen. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s the reason why it is often wrapped up in pretty gift boxes and foisted on elderly Chinese folks as presents. My mother-in-law used to receive them on a regular basis from well-meaning people, and that meant that at least a couple of boxes in turn got foisted onto me whenever we visited, as she didn’t know how to cook them correctly and wasn’t ever that interested in the kitchen to begin with. Back then I was just as confused as anyone about what to do with them, so I’d try in turn to foist them on somebody else or just toss them out when they finally got buggy or decrepit looking.

But that is all in the past. Now I revel in these things and hope you will, too.

Once you master this simple soup – which is slightly sweet, rather than savory, and therefore meant to be served at breakfast, in the afternoon, or after a heavy dinner – you should expand its possibilities into other avenues. Try it in light yet fresh fish or chicken or meatless soups, places where it can weave among the other ingredients, stay visible through the use of clear broths, and have its satin texture amplified or contrasted by the right accompaniments.

For example, a Chinese-style mushroom soup would be a great home for some silver ears, or a clear chicken stock with barely poached shreds of chicken breast, threads of fresh ginger, and a splash of Shaoxing rice wine.

Fully soaked silver ears
Silver ear fungus is a distinctly Chinese ingredient known by lots of pretty names, including xuě’ěr 雪耳, or “snow ear,” in Chinese, as well as jelly fungus in English. Pur­chase it from Chinese dried-foods stores, herbalists, and busy grocery stores. Look for large, unbroken heads that are not too white; whiteness means they were bleached. Store silver ears in a sealed plastic bag, where they will remain in good shape for a very long time.

Sweet pear soup with silver ears
Yíněr tiánlí tãng 銀耳甜梨湯
Shanxi and all over China; therapeutic cuisine
Serves 8 to 10

2 large heads silver ear fungus
3 quarts (3 l) boiling water
1 piece of rock sugar about the size of a large egg
Trim the bases
2 teaspoons ginger juice
3 tablespoons wolfberries (aka gouqi or goji berries), rinsed
2 tablespoons osmanthus blossom syrup, or ½ teaspoon sea salt
1 large Chinese pear of any variety, peeled, cored, and cut into small dice
Fresh lemon juice to taste, optional

1. Start this recipe at least 4 days before you wish to serve it. Rinse the silver ears and place them in a large work bowl. Cover the fungus with at least 2 inches (5 cm) of cool tap water, adding more water as needed to keep the silver ears submerged, and either refrigerate or keep in a cool area of the kitchen. Change the water twice a day for 3 days. On the second day, you can trim the silver ears by placing them in a col­ander set in the sink for easy cleaning. Use a paring knife to trim off the hard cores and any dark yellow spots, then separate the heads into individual petals (they do not have to be the same size), being sure to rinse off any detritus you find.

Transformation complete
2. Rinse the silver ears once again in a colander and then place them in a slow cooker, if you have one, or in a 4-quart (4 l) pot with a heavy bottom. Add the boiling water, return the water to a boil, and then cover and simmer very slowly for 6 to 8 hours, until the silver ears are completely translucent but have not started to break apart. About 1 hour before they are done, add the sugar, ginger juice, wolfberries, and osmanthus blossom syrup. The soup may be made ahead of time to this point and refrigerated; just heat it up before proceeding to the next step.

3. When the silver ears are soft and tender, remove the insert from the slow cooker or the pan from the heat. Add the pears to the hot soup, then taste the soup and add lemon juice or more sweetener if you wish. Serve the soup hot, or let it cool to room temperature, chill it, and enjoy it cold.


  1. My grandmother would boil soup with these but I never knew they could be anything BUT crunchy (I never did mind)! I am going to have to try this because a) I have a slow cooker b) I am in need of therapeutic foods after 5 insane rock performances last weekend, and one more slew of intense rehearsals till next week c) PEARS. Thank you for sharing the secret to making these lil' fungus balls amazing!

  2. Wow I had no idea their texture can be "beaten into submission" like this! Great tip and I'll have to try this. I just found your blog and your book. They are absolutely wonderful. Thank you!