Silk Route: Final Fungal Rites

Well, we’ve made it to the end of the Silk Route. To China. One of the most important ingredients in Chinese cooking is something that is very common around the world. Mushrooms.

Mushrooms are actually the fruit of a much larger being. Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are classified as fungi. The main body is subterranean, or lives on dead trees and living tree roots and can vary in size from a few inches to several miles wide.  from

Mushrooms have been, and continue to be, central to many religious rites and beliefs due to their medicinal and sometimes hallucinogenic properties. R. Gordon Wasson did substantial research demonstrating that one possibility for the mysterious SOMA of Vedic literature is a mushroom called Amanita muscaria. (Yes, that lovely red-capped mushroom from Alice in Wonderland.)


The Chinese use mushrooms in everything from medicine to religion, from dinner to tea.  The birthplace of the earliest known cultivated mushroom is the junction of China’s Zhejiang Province, Longquan City, Jingning County, and Qing Yuan County.  This kind of mushroom cultivation technology is known as the cut flower method. The Southern Song Dynasty produced the earliest known literature available on the invention of this technology. However, there is ample evidence that mushrooms are one of the earliest known food sources, dating back as far as the Paleolithic times. Few people – even anthropologists – comprehend how influential mushrooms have been in affecting the course of human evolution. Mushrooms have played pivotal roles in ancient Greece, India and Mesoamerica. True to their beguiling nature, fungi have always elicited deep emotional responses: from adulation by those who understand them to outright fear by those who do not. from

So it seems a bit ironic to me that the food ingredients that are most nutritious and beneficial to human health are also common to almost every culture everywhere and included in religious ceremonies all around the world – Fungus and weeds.

I started off  this Silk Route series by saying that “we will seen soon enough, as this story unfolds, how afternoon tea with my mother, the black plague, JJ’s worship of James Joyce, and the mass extinction of 2/3rds of the population of the America’s are all about what’s in your kitchen.” We have seen how European, Arab, Persian, Mongolian, Indian and Chinese merchants shaped the world through an exchange of local food stuffs.  We have seen that at the center of all this was India, the undisputed queen of spices. We see that China is the real creator of the modern world. And, finally, we have seen how an inability to get these kinds of food stuffs, like pepper, shifted the Silk Route from an overland route to a sea route. All of this, in effect, shaped the world we live in today.

Potatoes, peanuts, pepper, and pasta. So much of what we eat we see as a definition of our culture and sometimes even ourselves – particularly through our religions. But so much of what we eat comes from somewhere else. A good question to ask ourselves is how do we really define anything? When we look at cultures, food stuffs, and genes along the Silk Route, what we find is mostly a lot of grey area.

What I argue is that tea is as Indian as apple pie. JJ might have been born in closer proximity to a tea plantation, but is as much a part of my cultural heritage as it is his. My family might have been near neighbors with James Joyces’ family, but Ulysses is as much a part of his cultural heritage as it is mine.

What was really good about our relationship were our commonalities. We both like tea and curry and literature and hiking and those really tasty spiced cashews that he brought back from Indian with him and I have not been able to find again and much more. Cultural relationships, like personal relationships, are complex. We struggle constantly with the concepts and implications of unity and individuality, with definition and and undifferentiated creation. For JJ and I, it’s sad that he chose to focus on what we did not have in common rather than what we did, on what was hard to understand rather than what we liked about each other. But in a way, that is the story of the whole world.

Chinese mushroom recipe: stir fried mixed mushrooms (V)


  • Black fungus (Mu’er)
  • Dry day lily/golden needles vegetable (huang hua cai)
  • Chinese mushrooms
  • Oil
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • salt
  • soy sauce
  • cooking wine
  • vegetable/mushroom/chicken essence (optional)
  • ground sichuan peppercorn
  • five spices powder

Soak the main ingredients in warm water for couple of hours or until they become soft
Wash all the mushrooms and drain well.
Chop 3-4 gloves of garlic, and a good portion of ginger.
In a heated wok, pour in around 3 tablespoons of oil.
When oil is hot, add in chopped garlic and ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground sichuan peppercorn.
Add in prepared main ingredients, and stir well.
Add in 1 tablespoon of cooking wine, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of five spicy powder. Mix well with all the ingredients.
Add 1 cup of water, lower down the fire, let it keep on cooking for further 5 minutes.


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