To make this wood ear mushroom and cucumber salad, blanch the wood ears and toss in a dressing made with soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Add the cucumber, toss lightly and serve.
The inspiration came from a buffet. My brother-in-law, Buddy, had his birthday recently and we celebrated by inviting him to a buffet dinner. We attacked the buffet with both trepidation and excitement. We hadn’t been to a buffet in a almost a year—in fact, we had been consciously avoiding buffets because Speedy and I no longer eat the way we used to when we were much younger and the girls were mere toddlers. Back then, we go down plate after plate after plate of food. These days, we simply choose the dishes that are too labor-intensive to prepare at home and the ones that are unfamiliar but look truly tempting to try.
Then why did we choose a buffet dinner? Because there is a Buffet101 branch near where Buddy lives. Traffic in Metro Manila has reached legendary proportions and we didn’t want our invitation to be an inconvenience to him. It’s also because I’ve always felt that the buffet was invented with the still-unborn Buddy in mind. It was simply something that he would have enjoyed a hundred times over a plated and highly decorated meal. Did Buddy enjoy the meal? I thought so judging from the amount of roast beef that he downed with beer.
What about us? Sam and Alex feasted on the Japanese food, naturally. They always do in buffets. Speedy and I were more picky. I skipped the Japanese dishes except for the salmon sashimi and focused on the Chinese food. One of the dishes that had me going back for more was, surprisingly, nothing meaty but, in fact, completely meatless—the wood ear mushrooms and cucumber salad. So simple but with such wonderful textures with lightly crunchy wood ears and cucumbers. The dressing was subtle, barely seasoning the wood ears and cucumbers, but you know it’s there because it enchanted the taste buds and excited the nose. I just knew that I was going to make my version at home. And soon. I took a photo with my phone so I wouldn’t forget.
Two days later, my homemade version of wood ear mushrooms and cucumber salad was a reality. To heighten the flavors and textures even more, I decided to add a generous amount of toasted sesame seeds.
It’s not a complicated recipe. Preparation is nothing more than soaking dried wood ears, peeling and cutting a cucumber and mixing the dressing. Cooking time is eight minutes and consists of two parts only—blanching the rehydrated wood ears and toasting the sesame seeds. So little work for such a memorable dish.
For the dressing
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
- Soak the dried wood ear mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes to an hour until softened and doubled in volume. Drain. Cut off the tough portions (see full illustration). Tear into bite-size pieces.
- While the wood ears bathe in hot water, peel and scoop out the seeds of the cucumber. Cut into slices (what shape or size is up to you).
- In an oil-free pan, toast the sesame seeds over medium heat until golden brown and glossy with its own rendered oil.
- Make the dressing by stirring together the soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame seed oil and half of the toasted sesame seeds.
- Bring a pot of water to the boil. Drop in the rehydrated and trimmed wood ears. Leave for five minutes.
- Drain the wood ears, dump into a bowl of iced water then drain again.
- Place the wood ears in a bowl. Add the dressing and toss. The wood ears will soak up half of the dressing.
- Add the cucumber slices to the wood ears. Toss to blend.
- Sprinkle the remaining toasted sesame seeds over the wood ear mushrooms and cucumber salad before serving.
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