Why are morel mushrooms so loved by Hong Kong chefs? They’re bursting with savoury flavour and full of amino acids and antioxidants

Morel mushrooms are bursting with savoury flavour, and full of amino acids and antioxidants, and are loved by chefs and cooks. 

The knobbly, cone-capped morel mushroom, prized for its exceptional ability to imbue and absorb flavours and its health benefits – an average morel contains over 20 kinds of amino acids and is high in antioxidants – is an enduring kitchen classic.

Its arrival on store shelves, in tandem with similarly covetable ingredients such as asparagus and wild garlic, signals the start of the spring or summer season, depending on which region it grows in.

Part of its desirability stems from the fact that it is incredibly difficult to cultivate indoors (though farms in the United States and China have tried, with varying degrees of success Morels are notorious for their capriciousness.

The optimal growing conditions for morels are difficult to pinpoint, too. Some seasoned morel hunters will sniff out the fungi from sites ravaged by wildfires – while anecdotal, enthusiasts report the intriguing phenomenon of morels cropping up from scorched earth in the spring following such a blaze.

“Burn-site morels” (Morchella exuberans), a black variety, growing under a charred tree branch at the site of a fire. Photo: Shutterstock
In 2014, researchers from the University of Montana and University of Washington descended upon Yosemite National Park in California to study a 60-acre (24-hectare) plot that had burned during the 2013 Rim Fire. They discovered that morels were mostly found fruiting in patches where the forest floor had been completely blackened.
Their discovery echoed the pattern of morels cropping up after the 2012 Duck Lake Fire in the US state of Michigan and fires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the state of Tennessee in 2016.

These “burn-site morels” are scientifically known as Morchella exuberans, and while few chefs have specified using this variety of mushroom, they are currently on the menu at Nagamoto in Central, Hong Kong.

The eponymous restaurant headed by chef Teruhiko Nagamoto features a frequently rotating seasonal menu. A recent dish notable for its clarity of flavour and ability to encompass the scent and flavour of spring marching into summer is the Japanese wagyu beef sukiyaki with French morels and pickled egg yolk.

“The morels are washed and soaked in water for two hours before steaming and slicing,” says Nagamoto. “The morel water is reserved for making the sukiyaki sauce, according to my recipe, with the inclusion of Japanese soy sauce, mirin and red wine. Then the morels will be cooked with this special sukiyaki sauce and stir-fried lightly in front of guests before serving.”

Chef Teruhiku Nagamoto at his eponymous restaurant in Central, Hong Kong. Photo: Nagamoto
Chef Teruhiku Nagamoto at his eponymous restaurant in Central, Hong Kong. Photo: Nagamoto

The chef rarely selects ingredients from outside Japan for his menus; however, he makes an exception for the French fungi.

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