It is a fungus, Auricularia polytricha, and it played a very important role in the European settlement of Taranaki 150 years ago. Mark was raised knowing it as ‘pigs’ ear fungus’. I shall call it wood-ear fungus if I can not commit the Maori name – hakekakeka – to immediate memory. Most of the common names appear to have an ear reference in them, though the unfortunately named ‘Jew’s ear fungus’ is a different species of auricularia. The Chinese call it mu-er.
I thought I should try cooking some if I planned to write about it but when I looked up how to use it, I found the comment:
“Auricularia polytricha is usually sold in dried form, and needs to be soaked in water before use. While almost tasteless, it is prized for its slippery but slightly crunchy texture, and its potential nutritional benefits. The slight crunchiness persists despite most cooking processes.” (1)
It didn’t sound sufficiently appealing to me. Our son has friends whose parents were new migrants from China and occasionally they used to collect it here for their father, but he has moved on from Taranaki now.
This fungus is by no means unique to Taranaki. It grows widely through South East Asia and parts of China and it was the Chinese connection that proved to be the salvation of the early settlers. When they arrived in this area, commonly expecting rolling grass fields, they found instead the daunting sight of dense native forest. They set about clearing the land and indeed, Mark’s settler great-great grandfather was killed by a falling tree, as was often the case in those days. Hakekakeka found the environment of felled and decaying native trees and stumps particularly hospitable and grew in abundance. I am sure these early settlers, most of whom hailed from South Devon and Cornwall, had no idea what this odd fungus was so it was their good fortune that a local merchant did.
Enter Chew Chong, though this is the anglicised version of his name which was actually Chau Tseung. Like so many Chinese, he left his homeland in the mid 1800s for the goldrushes, first in Australia and then New Zealand. The hardship, contempt, extreme discrimination and prejudice these early Chinese settlers endured has only been highlighted in recent years and there is real irony to new colonisers from Britain being so harsh on new settlers from China.
But Chew Chong carved out his own space in history. Gold mining was not for him. He became a merchant and found his way to Taranaki. He was an extraordinarily successful and entrepreneurial businessman. He saw the resource in hakekakeka and brought together an abundant supply in Taranaki with a market in China. In a period of 30 years, he is credited with exporting 8400 tons of dried fungus. If you convert imperial tons, that makes it over 8.5 million kilos of it, which is beyond comprehension, really. What was more critical to the development of Taranaki, is that he paid out in cash at a time when cash was in very short supply. I do not know how the recorded pay-out sum of £309,343 converts to modern monetary values but Chew Chong is credited with keeping the new settlements in Taranaki viable, laying the economic foundations for the dairy industry. Mostly based on this fungus.
I photographed it growing on one of the lengths of branch that we use to edge a garden. The decaying branch is whiteywood, (mahoe or botanically Melicytus ramiflorus) which is one of the main hosts, along with tawa and pukatea. Mark commented that people still sold the fungus when he was a child but he has no idea who was buying it. However, it might be time for a revival given the search for alternative protein, in addition to its many other valued qualities.
“It contains carbohydrates, calcium, potassium, iron, the same percentage of protein as meat, including eight kinds of amino acids, and is low in fat. The Chinese used it to lower cholesterol, coagulate and purify blood, improve circulation and aid wellbeing, and as an antiseptic mouthwash, an aphrodisiac and an ingredient in wood glue.” (2)
Maybe a hakekakeka revival could replace the highly polluting, intrusive Methanex plants locally that turn gas into methanol which is then used, amongst other things, to manufacture builders’ glue. I would call that a win all around. And all the clichés about our province of Taranaki being built on dairy, oil and gas (‘white gold’ and ‘black gold’, the defenders of those two industries like to declare) entirely ignores the pivotal role of Chew Chong and the flabby fungus.
Postscript: Mark is sure we should be trying it after I pointed out its claimed protein content and all round goodness. This cluster of it has turned black now. When I find a fresher batch, we may try it after all. I shall report further as to whether it is neutral to eat or an acquired taste.