Auricularia polytricha. An edible fungus used in cooking, originally from China where it is both cultivated and collected. It is usually store bought in its dried form.

Similar to the European and North American Jew's ear (Auricularia auricula), wood ears are a gelatinous species growing on trees. Jew's ear are commonly grown on branches and trunks of elder. Jew's ear (properly the ear of Judas, who by legend hanged himself from an elder) can be used in the same dishes, but it has a bit less flavor.

Usually black or brown in color and usually wrinkled together somewhat resembling the shape of a shell. Some are white (but that's a different variety). All of them are somewhat transparent and crunchy.

The taste of a wood ear isn't as flavorful as the texture. In fact, wood ears are almost entirely texture, and very faintly mushroom scented. The Chinese group it with other texture foods such as sea cucumbers and bird's nest.

To cook: Soak for half an hour with cool water, rinsing many times. Seperate the clusters with your fingers so that the soil and seeds can fall to the bottom of the sink/bowl.

Yuan Mei's sea cucumber gourmet

Sea cucumber is usually boiled and dried when you buy it in stores. It looks like a dried banana, and nothing like normal seafood. It needs to be soaked well, until soft. By the end of the recipe, its texture should be one of "tender resilience". (It's a bit like chewing an old car tire if you don't cook it well).

Serves 4:
1/2 pound dried sea cucumber, soaked
1/2 ounce dried wood ears, soaked
2 1/2 ounces shiitake, soaked.

3 ounces dried prawns or shrimp
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 3/4 teaspoons sugar
6 small pickling onions, peeled
3 slices fresh ginger root, peeled
3 cups water
3 cups chicken or beef consomme
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Clean the soaked sea cucumber and cut it into 1/2 inch chunks. Separate the wood ears. Discard the stems of the shiitake, but keep the water in which they have been soaked.

To make the stock, put the prawns into a large container with the sesame oil and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Cover with about a quarter of boiling water. After 10 minutes, pour into a sieve over the sink. Put the prawns into a saucepan with the remaining stock ingredients, not forgetting the last 3/4 teaspoonful of sugar. Simmer for 1 hour, then strain off stock and discard the prawns.

Put the stock into a clean pan with the sea cucumber, the wood ears and the shiitake and their reserved soaking water. Simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

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