Boiling Point: Straw mushrooms cute and delicious

Jim Hillibish

Before the Vietnam War, you would rarely find straw mushroom here. Then our soldiers in Southeast Asia fell for them and demanded them back home.

Wars do this. They spread cuisine. Since Vietnam, we’ve had an explosion of interest in Thai and Vietnamese cookery (Chinese was already popular). A memorable meal in Saigon breaches the culinary gap and is still strong 30 years later.

Straw mushrooms, cultivated only in Asia, are grown on top of their namesake. They’re stronger than our common button mushrooms but fit perfectly with strong-sauced dishes, even beyond Asian varieties.

When you first see them, you suddenly realize, “Hey, these guys look familiar.” In 1940, Walt Disney produced the first animated movie to power the craft to an art form. “Fantasia” mixed classical music with movement with Mickey Mouse. One of its most beloved scenes is the “Dance of the Mushrooms.”

No wonder they’re familiar. Straw mushrooms were the dancers. They’re still cute with the little round caps, but they possess qualities beyond our mushrooms.

The straws come fresh in Asian markets, dried and canned. I like them best canned -- the process tames them somewhat. Although they look benign, straw mushrooms can be very strong.

My favorite moment is the mushroom liqueur. Straws are full of it, and when you bite one, you get a full blast of mushroom flavor. No wonder they’re the third most popular mushroom in the world.

For this reason, be careful. The mushrooms hold the heat, especially in a stir-fry, and the unsuspecting can get a burned mouth as the hot liqueur flows.

The 15-ounce cans are now available in most groceries. As with button mushrooms, they come in broken and whole varieties, the whole being more expensive. I buy the broken as I’ll be slicing them anyway.

The prices are all over the place, from $1 to $4.50 a 15-ounce can. Anything less than $2 is a steal. If I have my choice, I look for Khamphouk brand grown in Taiwan.

One can is too much for two people. But not to worry: Rinse the leftovers and refrigerate in water in a plastic container. They will last for a few days.

Their only rule is to cook them as fast as possible. Long simmering destroys them. In a stir-fry, the most popular use here, add with a minute to go and flip to warm. You want them just warmed for best flavor.

They are excellent chopped in dim sum rolls and in broth soups. You could make a side dish for steak. Dry them out of the can on a paper towel. Sauté them briefly in butter over high heat. Add a dash of sherry just before serving.

You might feel a little strange at first cannibalizing a beloved cartoon character, but you’ll get over it quickly with the first bite.


2/3 cup long-grain rice

1/3 cup onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 can straw mushrooms (7.5 ounces)

1 can chicken broth

Pour a cup of broth into a measuring cup. Add a half-cup of liqueur from the mushroom can. Drain the rest of the can.

Heat oil in a ceramic baking dish. Add onions and garlic and stir. When the onion is translucent (3-4 minutes) add rice and mix, allowing rice to take up the hot oil. Add the 1 1/2 cups liquid, cover and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Then turn heat to “warm,” add mushrooms, cover and allow to steep for 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Fluff with fork. Serves 2-3.

Note: For “dirty” rice, substitute a can of beef broth.

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