Although freshness has become somewhat of a fetish among modern cooks, the fact is that many of the world’s finest foods aren’t fresh at all—they’re cured, dried, smoked, or salted. Think of olives (ever tried one ripe?), ham, cheese, anchovies, caviar.
In their ancient cuisine, the Chinese have hundreds of such foods, which probably evolved from attempts to preserve them. No longer a mere substitute for the fresh, these foods develop incomparable flavor or texture when dried or cured. Dried scallops, for instance, are a luxury item sold for many times the price of the just-caught version. We love fresh shiitakes, but the very top grades, available in gift boxes in Chinese markets, are grown to be dried. And many foods-dozens of varieties of shrimp, fish, sea moss, jellyfish, and luxury items such as bird’s nest and shark’s fin—are harvested specifically for drying.
Over the past two decades, American cooks have readily adopted fresh Asian ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass, and bok choy; soy and chile sauces and sesame oil also can be found in the American pantry. Yet on my forays into Chinese markets I’ve found that non-Asians are still perplexed by dried ingredients. Here are 11 that you should get to know:
Dried Shrimp: If you’ve ordered pad Thai lately, you’ve probably eaten dried shrimp, which are usually ground and used as a seasoning to impart a subtle briny taste. They’re delicious ground (using a spice grinder with freshly roasted peanuts or dried chiles) and added to noodle dishes, salads, soups, and stir-fries. Make sure to buy the larger—and more expensive—shrimp (the tiny ones sometimes have a funky, unpleasant taste) and to select those that are bright pink or pink-orange (they brown and harden with age).
Dried Scallops: Lightly cured conpoy, as they are called in Chinese herbal stores, capture the essence of the sea just as good caviar does. Used in rich XO sauce, dried scallops add a remarkable depth of flavor to soups, rice, and noodle dishes. As with dried shrimp, the larger are superior to the smaller (bay scallops). The best can cost more than $40 a pound. To use, place three or four dried scallops in a small saucer, sprinkle with dry Sherry, and steam, covered, until soft enough to pull apart, 30 minutes to an hour. Save the liquid that accumulates and add it to the sauce or to soup.
Dried Black Mushrooms: The Japanese call them shiitake, the Chinese donggu. They are delicious when braised with rich meats such as short ribs and pork shoulder. Ancient Chinese herbals describe these “winter” mushrooms in terms of the fallen chestnut and oak trees on which they grow. The Japanese cultivate them on the shii, a type of oak. Available in the greatest variety at Chinese apothecaries, the best dried black mushrooms have thick, lightly spotted caps with deep fissures. For cooking, you can reconstitute them quickly by pouring just enough boiling water over them to cover. The mushrooms develop more flavor, though, if you use the slower method of soaking them in tepid water for six hours or overnight. Squeeze the excess moisture back into the soaking liquid (a savory stock that can later be added to the dish), then cut off the hard stems and slice the caps or leave whole.
Black Tree Fungus: Called mu-er by the Chinese (and known as tree ears or wood ears in English), this fungus may be neutral in taste but is soft and crinkly and gives a pleasantly light crunch to dishes like mu shu pork, hot-and-sour soup, even scrambled eggs. The very smallest, which look like tiny, gnarled black flakes, are best. To reconstitute, pour boiling water over to cover and let stand for 30 minutes. The mushrooms will swell considerably—three heaping tablespoons of dried, for example, will yield about a cup of soaked.
White Tree Fungus: Until I came across bai mu-er growing in an Australian rain forest, I’d only seen these pale-golden, spongelike mushrooms (they resemble bleached coral) in gift boxes in Chinese markets. They supply visual drama to a soup with clear broth, and the Chinese serve them in a syrup made with rock sugar as a kind of cold, sweet soup. Their flavor ranges from neutral to mild. Like their black cousins, these mushrooms are more a texture enhancer than anything else. Reconstitute them as you would black tree fungus, above.
Jellyfish: In restaurants specializing in Shanghainese and Taiwanese food, jellyfish shreds are often served as a sort of salad, with sesame oil dressing. Dim sum restaurants also offer this vitamin-rich protein, with its pleasant, clean crunch and hint of the sea, as part of a cold selection. As with dried shrimp, quality is important. The edible, warm-water variety has a large circular body top (”skin”) that becomes thinner and more desirable as the jellyfish grows older. Although it is available salted and dried in one-pound plastic packages, the best jellyfish is sold out of large crocks in markets specializing in Shanghainese goods. Unfold the pieces, cover with cold water, and soak for eight hours, changing the water twice. Before using, parboil about 15 seconds, then rinse under cold water before rolling the pieces up, one at a time, and slicing thinly.
Black Moss, a.k.a. Hair Vegetable: Called fat choy by the Cantonese, this moss, from the desert in northwestern China, looks like matted black hair when dried, and, when soaked, like something you’d see floating in a tidal flat. Its soft fibers provide texture, earthy taste (it absorbs the flavor of the dish it’s being cooked in), and a striking visual contrast when simmered in a light chicken sauce or served in soup or a stir-fried chicken dish. It’s sold in 1.3-ounce packages or in bulk. Soak black moss for 30 minutes or so in cold water before using.