Mushroom diplomacy: US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sets off culinary craze in China

It’s been several days since US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen left Beijing, and much has been said about her efforts to repair the US-China relationship.

But politics aside, her Beijing visit resulted in one unexpected success – she managed to dramatically boost business for a Yunnan restaurant chain while bringing jian shou qing, an unusual yet highly sought-after mushroom prized for its unique properties, into the national limelight.

Shortly after the treasury secretary landed in Beijing last week, her delegation was spotted dining at Yi Zuo Yi Wang (In and Out). Contrary to the eatery’s English name, there are no burgers here. This restaurant chain specializes in Yunnan food, a popular regional cuisine from part of southwestern China that borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

It all started when a food blogger posted about Yellen’s party’s meal on Weibo, a popular Chinese micro-blogging site.

“When I walked by their table on my way to the washroom, I slowed down to take a glance at the dishes they ordered,” said Weibo user Pan Pan Mao in the post.

Among the dishes the food blogger claimed to have spotted were grilled fish with herbs, stir-fried pickled Yunnan wild greens with potato slices and cold rice noodles.

“Very Yunnan, very homey,” Pan Pan Mao commented.

The restaurant soon confirmed the visit on its Weibo account.

“US Treasury Secretary Yellen was here,” said the post, in Chinese.

“Speculating from the timestamp on the news, it was true that she came (to the restaurant) right after landing in China. Our staff said she loved mushrooms very much. She ordered four portions of jian shou qing (a Yunnan wild mushroom species). It was an extremely magical day.”

The hashtag “US Treasury Secretary Yellen’s first meal in Beijing is Yunannese” became a trending topic on social media, with related posts racking up 6 million views.

Many netizens expressed curiosity, wondering who picked the restaurant. Others noted they were impressed by Yellen’s chopsticks skills and her delegation’s down-to-earth choice for her first post-flight meal.

But the most heated discussions were focused on the multiple orders of the mushroom dish – jian shou qing.

This person added that Yellen enjoys going out to different restaurants, including popular local ones like Yi Zuo Yi Wang, whenever she travels with her team.

She also enjoys meeting different people in the countries she visits over a meal, this person continued, pointing to her upcoming lunch with Vietnamese women economists during her current trip to Vietnam and India.

Jian shou qing, Yunnan’s mysterious mushrooms

Jian shou qing, which translates literally as “see hand blue,” gets its Chinese name from one of its defining characteristics – the inner surfaces of the mushrooms bruise and turn blue when you apply pressure on them, including during the slicing process.

It’s an umbrella term for a family of mushrooms, but in Yunnan, jian shou qing mostly refers to what scientists call “Lanmaoa asiatica.”

“It’s a medium- to large-sized mushroom, reddish color on the outside and yellow underneath and looks very similar to some of the porcini mushrooms,” says Dr. Peter Mortimer, a professor at Kunming Institute of Botany.

“So similar in fact that it is easily confused with local porcini species, often with interesting, or scary, consequences.”

The South African national first arrived in Yunnan in 2010 on a climbing holiday and was offered a position at the institute. He has lived in Yunnan and been researching the region’s mushrooms ever since.

“Lanmaoa mushrooms are considered poisonous as they can be hallucinogenic,” says Mortimer, who spends many of his days in the Yunnan forest foraging for fungi.

“However, scientists have not, as of yet, identified the compounds responsible for causing the hallucinations. It remains a bit of a mystery, and most evidence is anecdotal. I have a friend who mistakenly ate them and hallucinated for three days.”

Last year, the Botanical Society of Yunnan published an updated index of Yunnan’s poisonous mushrooms, with photos identifying the species, to warn the public. Among the fungi included was jian shou qing, leading to discussions about whether the beloved mushrooms should still be allowed to be sold online and served in restaurants. In the end, popularity trumped such concerns and they’re still widely available.

Despite its reputation, jian shou qing is considered a common delicacy among Yunnan locals and is a popular dish at Yunnan restaurants throughout China, where the mushrooms are properly prepared to avoid any negative effects.

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, even produced a news segment on how to eat jian shou qing safely on July 10 following Yellen’s visit, interviewing Chinese shoppers at a Yunnan wild mushroom market.

One interviewee claimed that she had been negatively affected once: “You thought you were walking straight but you just fell sideways.”

“I still eat it. I can’t stop myself,” another mushroom fan told Xinhua. “We often ask one person at the table to try one first, and if he is OK, we will follow and start eating.”

The general belief is that you have to fully cook the fungi to rid them of hallucinogenic properties.

The aftereffect for the Yunnan restaurant chain has been prominent. Following Yellen’s visit, wild mushroom dishes have been selling out in the restaurant’s many branches in China’s major cities, the chain said in a later Weibo post.

Growing appetite for Yunnan cuisine

The fact that Yellen and her team visited a Yunnan restaurant shouldn’t come as a surprise.

While it may not be as popular as Cantonese or Sichuanese food internationally, Yunnan cuisine – also referred to as Dian Cai – has long been a beloved dining option all over China and has soared in popularity among hip young urban Chinese in recent years.

“However, with the rise of fine-dining restaurants in China, more chefs are discovering the value of these exceptional ingredients, leading to increased attention and appreciation [to Yunnan food],” says Ng.

Ranked no.31 on the latest Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the restaurant strives to combine Chinese ingredients with international cooking techniques. Ng says it has incorporated many Yunnan ingredients in its current seasonal menu.

“In fact, for our summer menu, we use Yunnan ingredients in 60% of our dishes. Some of the highlights include our scampi appetizer with peanut shoots, uni custard with fresh wild chanterelle and dry mushrooms, beef tartare with sunchoke, scallop dumpling with summer truffle, and our duck dish with a jus infused with fresh peppercorns.

“We also use fresh wild milk cap mushrooms to complement our wagyu beef, and fresh jasmine flowers to add a seasonal touch to our melon dessert.”

Amidst the plethora of fresh produce on offer in the region, mushrooms are undeniably one of Yunnan’s most loved ingredients, especially in summer.

“Yunnan is absolutely mushroom mad,” says scientist Mortimer. “There are towns where all the streets are named after mushrooms, buildings designed to look like mushrooms, and all the restaurants are serving mushroom dishes. The Yunnan people are extremely knowledgeable regarding mushrooms, from the kids through to the old folks.”

Mushroom festivals and sumptuous mushroom feasts are often held around Yunnan from June to October. In Chuxiong prefecture in central Yunnan province, for instance, foragers bring their most prized fungi collections and compete for the “King of Mushroom” title.

Restaurants and local homes serve wild mushroom hotpots during the season, too.

“Yunnan is home to about 800 species of mushrooms that people eat,” adds Mortimer.

“That is a crazy number of edible species for one place. Consider the fact that there are only about 2,200 species of mushrooms considered edible globally.”

But there’s so much more to Yunnan food than fungi.

Yunnan Province is home to many ethnic minority groups, resulting in a colorful array of spices and fresh flavors from different regions.

Perhaps the most popular dish to come out of the province is Yunnan Guoqiaomixian (translated as “crossing-the-bridge rice noodles”). Why the name? Legend has it that cross-the-bridge rice noodles were invented many years ago by a loving wife. Her husband studied on an island, so the wife would travel across a bridge to deliver him his daily lunches.

As the food would be cold after the journey, the disheartened wife decided to bring a pot of scalding hot chicken broth, along with the rice noodles and raw ingredients.

The chicken oil on the surface of the soup kept the liquid warm. When the husband was ready to eat, she’d cook all the ingredients by pouring them into the hot soup.

Today, many noodle shops sell their own style of cross-the-bridge rice noodles, offering a choice of different ingredients and soup bases.

Other popular Yunnan foods include Xuanwei dry-cured ham, comforting rice pancakes and rubing – goat cheese. The province also has an enviable selection of wild edible flowers, especially in spring, and is also the home of pu’er, a popular variety of fermented tea known for its complex and earthy flavor.

“Yunnan has a huge variety of interesting dishes stemming from the cultural diversity in the province,” says Mortimer.

“Mushroom hotpots are always a great option when you have a big group of people, and I really enjoy the selection of unusual vegetables, such as fern fronds.”

So say what you like about whether Yellen’s Beijing visit had any impact on relations between the world’s two biggest economies. When it comes to Chinese cuisine, it’s clear the treasury secretary’s team made all the right moves.

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