GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Pepeiau mushrooms will never win a beauty prize, but are critical to a variety of Asian dishes. They are now grown on the Big Island. CLICK FOR LARGE
A mushrooming market
For the first time in Hawaii, pepeiao -- ear fungus -- is being grown commercially
» Growing pepeiao
LAUPAHOEHOE, Hawaii » There's nothing glamorous about the life of the mushroom known as pepeiao.
Let's start with its English names: tree fungus, black fungus or, even better, ear fungus.
And then there's the way it grows in the wild, on rotting tree trunks.
But this mushroom is prized in Asian cuisines, often sliced into shreds for use in dishes such as hot and sour soup, mu shu pork and Vietnamese spring rolls,
For the first time in Hawaii, pepeiao is being grown commercially. "It's an endemic species I found in the botanical garden in Onomea," said Bob Stanga of Hamakua Mushrooms on the Big Island.
Pepeiao is more commonly found as a dry product in Asian groceries. Once reconstituted with water, the mushroom is prized for its crunchy texture and ability to soak up the flavors of seasonings and other foods.
Stanga's fresh pepeiao, Aricularia polytricha, one of many Aricularia varieties in the mushroom world, have every bit of crispness as the dried ones with a lively freshness to them. Densely clustered and thick, this pepeiao is already destined for some of Hawaii's fine restaurants as well as supermarkets.
"It reminds me of seaweed," said chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro restaurant, who became familiar with pepeiao when he came to Hawaii 18 years ago. "I like the chewy and crunchy consistency."
Mavrothalassitis uses it in a few dishes, including a salad that accompanies his Corriander-Crusted Onaga. "The pepeiao has no specific flavor; we sauté it with hearts of palm. I love the crunchy consistency alongside."