Tree Ears

木耳 mandarin: moo-er; Cantonese: maw-yee

Also called wood ears, cloud ears, Jew’s ears, and dried black fungus in English, this rubbery but crunchy, saucer-shaped fungus (Auricularia polytricha) is habitually dried for use in Chinese cooking. It is tasteless, but nonetheless valued for its rich, brown-black color and its intriguing texture. It is typically paired with golden needles, and featured in the well-known dishes hot and sour soup and mu-shu pork.

There are two types of tree ears found in Chinese markets. The type to get is fortunately also the most common, thumb nail-size, irregular bits of blackness without any sheen, bagged in plastic, about 2 ounces per bag. The sort to avoid is called “white-backed black tree ear” in Chinese, and has a relatively shiny black “belly” and a fuzzy-looking, light tan “back.” The latter are huge and tough once soaked and look more like something to resole a jogging shoe than to put in a bowl of soup.

Tree ears must be soaked and thoroughly cleaned before using. Cover generously with warm or cool water—about 1 cup water for each 2 tablespoons tree ears—then soak until supple, 20–30 minutes. Drain, then swish repeatedly in a large bowl of water to dislodge all the foresty bits that are trapped in the irregular folds of the fungus. Drain, swish, and drain again. Pinch off any unchewable or overly gelatinous bits, but do not remove the extra-crunchy folds that give the tree ears character. Once clean, cover with cool water until use, overnight if you like, and drain thoroughly before using.
Most Chinese cookbooks call for the tree ears to be broken into small bits before using. I like to leave them at least nickel size, so that my tongue and eye can enjoy their irregular, wavy charm.