The Wood Ear fungus is a type of jelly mushroom found widely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere, although it is more commonly cultivated and used for food in parts of Asia. Wood Ear often appears in Chinese and Japanese food, where it lends an interesting texture which can sometimes be off putting to Western consumers. Wood Ear is also listed on menus as Black Tree Fungus or Kikurage, and is formally known as Auricularia polytricha.
The Wood Ear fungus does strongly resemble an ear, as it forms folds and whorls while it grows on the trunks and bark of mostly dead trees. Like other jelly fungi, the Wood Ear tends to jiggle slightly, and has a slightly crunchy, slightly rubbery texture which is retained even after cooking. The mushroom ranges in color from black to an unusual albino variant, and has a smooth, dry surface. It is most commonly found on hardwood trees, and prefers damp, dark weather. It can be a fun and interesting find in the woods, and like other jelly fungi is very easy to identify, making it an excellent teaching tool.
Wood Ears can be found in most Asian markets in dried form, and in some regions fresh varieties are available as well. Dried Wood Ear fungus can be rehydrated with boiling water and used exactly like fresh mushrooms in soups, stir fries, and stuffings. The mushroom is mostly used for its texture, to add a different mouth feel to foods. Unlike other edible jelly fungi, the Wood Ear has no appreciable flavor, although it will readily absorb flavors from other foods cooked with it. For this reason, it is commonly used in hot and sour soup as well as stir fries.
Studies of the Wood Ear fungus have suggested that it may also have medicinal benefits. In addition to lowering cholesterol, the fungus also acts to prevent blood clotting. Because the fungus inhibits clotting, sensitive individuals should avoid consuming large amounts of it, as it has been known to cause internal bleeding. Other scientific studies suggest that this fungus may also be valuable as a nutritional cancer fighting tool.
When looking for fresh Wood Ear fungus to purchase, look for firm, evenly textured specimens with no slimy or wet spots. The fungus should wobble when jolted, and have a uniform color. It can be stored in a paper bag under refrigeration for up to two weeks, or dried for future use. Dried specimens will also have a relatively even color, and should be tightly sealed with no signs of moisture or mold. They can be stored in a dark, room temperature cupboard for up to one year.