Ava Chin at Storytelling and Food – Ava Chin

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Change Food

Hi, everybody. Can you hear me alright, just out of curiosity? Okay. I can project because I used to be a slam poet. This is a food poem called “Wun Yee. Muk Yee. Cloud Ear Fungus. Does it grow on land or in the sea?”

My grandfather holds the tiny cloud ears running under a tap. His restaurant worker hands acting like a colander, sifting dust and water from food. I watch from my perch on the kitchen stool as the tiny black fungi the size my shirt buttons lying in hot water, begin to bloom like flowers. At dinner I search out these cloud ears, these medicinal fungi, from amongst the beef and broccoli with my chopsticks. “Does it grow on land or in the sea?” I ask. But I’m quickly silenced. I must eat on the faith that I will grow large and strong, like the sturdy tree that is my grandfather. Who toils in bars and restaurants. Standing in front of customers until the veins in his leg swell and turn black, the color of blood. I eat on the faith that I will become like my grandmother. The first woman in our family to graduate from college. Who saves us from the sure financial ruin of my grandfather each time he hits the racetrack. I eat the Wun Yee, the Muk Yee, the cloud ear fungus on the faith that I’ll become as beautiful as my mother, Miss Chinatown with the bee stung lips. But even her honey charms couldn’t convince my father to stay. I eat the Wun Yee faithfully, reverently, consuming the brown crunch of it. The filmy weight of it on my tongue until it disappears from my plate and I wait. Wun Yee, Muk Yee, cloud ear fungus. Does it grow on land or in the sea? In the years since we buried him, I’ve found lemony wood sorrel and dandelion greens growing across my grandfather’s grave. Every spring, summer and fall I walk the city, collecting chanterelles, boletes, morels, maitake mushrooms, spinachy lamb’s quarters. That reaches leafy fingers towards the sun. I have grown strong in the years like my grandparents. Blooming steadily in my own way, like a polypore mushroom, spreading across an old decaying log. I have discovered Wun Yee, Muk Yee, cloud ear fungus, the food of my youth, hanging from tree stumps throughout the five boroughs. A mystery finally answered. If grandpa were alive today I could show him the ingredients growing all around us. An embarrassment of treasures, edible treasures. Instead I eat my way throughout the city, sampling violets and other leafy greens. Like a child in his kitchen watching him rinse the Wun Yee, the Muk Yee, the cloud ear fungus, soaking them before patting them dry. Letting them rest before they’re finally fit for the pan.

I am Ava Chin. I am the author of “Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal.” I’m also the former urban forager columnist for the New York Times. When people discover that I’m a forager they have one of two reactions. Either they think that I’m a freegan who dumpster dives and likes to eat roadkill, or they think I’m broke and down on my luck. And the reason why I’m foraging is because I can’t afford to eat any other way. But for me foraging is all about finding the edible wild foods, the vegetables and the mushrooms that are growing all around us. Particularly in New York City because this is my home town. And what I’m going to do throughout the course of this presentation.

I am going to take you on a mini virtual foraging tour of the city’s most edible wild mushrooms and plants that are growing here, seasonally, both right now and in the next couple of weeks. So when I first started foraging, this field when I would walk through the parks and I would walk through my college campuses where I teach. It would look like a field of green. And it was difficult for me to distinguish a wild edible plant from an inedible plant. And what I discovered though, if we take this notion of a plant that’s edible, out from under the concept of a weed. And we start to learn its common name, its Latin name, its culinary and medicinal usage which often exists in other cultures around the world then you’re able to actually see the plants. You’re able to have them pop out at you as if they’re in Technicolor.

And so one of my very favorite wild edibles that is growing right now and throughout the course of the summer and in the fall is a plant called lamb’s quarters. Lamb’s quarters has the distinction of being one of the most nutritious plants in the world. It is high in vitamins A, C and K. It is related to spinach, beets and quinoa. And if you take a look at the middle of the slide you will see a plant that has triangular shaped leaves and a kind of white powder in the center. If you look right in the center of the slide, like a bullseye, you’re going to see the lamb’s quarters. Now, lamb’s quarters is a prized vegetable in Greek, Bangladeshi and Persian cuisines. But you’ll be hard pressed to find them in any supermarket here. It is a traditional food. Human beings have been eating lamb’s quarters since the prehistoric times. For example, the excavated stomach of an Iron Age man that they found in a bog in Denmark. Actually contained the seeds of lamb’s quarters within it as well as a host of other edible weeds that we don’t eat these days. Lamb’s quarters, I should tell you, tastes a lot like spinach. In fact it kind of tastes like spinach turned up to 11. So it actually out-spinaches spinach in terms of pure greeny flavor.

Another wild edible that you find all throughout the city in the summer months is something called amaranth. Amaranth’s Latin name is amaranthus retroflexus. In Greece it’s a prized vegetable, but it’s also used in the West Indies and the Caribbean, it’s called callaloo. And they mix it up with fish as well into a delicious dish. Amaranth or callaloo is also found across the five boroughs and it’s a traditional American food, it’s native to the Americas. We have been eating, people have been eating amaranth since pre Columbian times. And it’s such a tenacious weed. It’s kind of made its way all around the world, including to the Mediterranean, where it’s part of the Mediterranean diet. I have seen this plant growing in urban farms in Brooklyn. But these otherwise progressive urban farmers, when I tell them, “You’ll have a plant that is edible. That you could serve and sell to the Caribbean community and the Greek communities around you.” What they often tell me is, “Eh, it’s taking up space for other things that I want to plant.” So this is a neglected food source that is growing all around us, that is treasured in other parts of the world, we just don’t see it. It is also interestingly enough, growing in front of the Greek Consulate on the upper east side. In Greece, cooks use it anywhere from pies, for salads, for side dishes.

But every summer the amaranth comes up right in front of the Greek Consulate and the gardener who doesn’t seem to know any better, comes and wrestles it and pulls it out like it’s a terrible irksome weed. Years ago a Corsican friend of mine told me a story about a wild greens pie that her grandmother used to make. Her grandmother in Corsica used to lead foraging expeditions for the entire family and they used to go out of the house and go and forage on the hillsides and bring back all manner of wild edible weeds. And her grandmother would take these weeds and she would cook it up into a wild green pie. She would call it a grass pie. I became so inspired by this idea of a grass pie that I decided to do my own Brooklyn version of the grass pie. And late in the spring I collected amaranth and lamb’s quarters. And because I had to kind of improvise because I didn’t have the great resources of wild edibles that they have in Corsica. I had to mix in a little bit of grass fed ricotta. This pie is a very seasonal pie. I can use any kinds of ingredients, depending on what the season is, spring, summer and fall. The pie is reflective of the growing season. This recipe is in my book, ‘Eating Wildly’. But it also figures in the ‘Edible Brooklyn Cookbook’, if you have that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon some of the wild mushrooms that grow in the city. I’m curious if anybody knows what this is and wants to call out what it is. A morel, very good, gold star. This is a morel mushroom, morchella esculenta, the yellow morel. Morels are highly coveted mushrooms, not just because they’re incredibly delicious, but because they cannot be cultivated. They can only grow in the wild. So foragers have to go out and collect it. This is reflected in the very high prices in the supermarkets. Now, mushroom foragers will not tell you where their secret patches of these morel mushrooms are because if the conditions are right the mushrooms will come back year after year after year. So I’m happy to report to you that morel mushrooms do indeed grow in the city, I just cannot tell you where.

So the person who laid the foundation of my culinary palette was my grandfather, my late grandfather who was a Chinese restaurant worker. My grandfather believed like a lot of Chinese people, that your food is your medicine. And so he cooked with many medicinal herbs and berries and mushrooms. And one of the things he cooked with were cloud ear or wood ear fungus. Now, when they’re reconstituted in our food, you might have seen them in hot and sour soup or maybe in stir-fries. These fungi look a lot like Irish moss seaweed. So for a long time, I didn’t know if it grew in the land or on the sea. So it was only until years later after my grandfather passed away that I was able to discover the wild relative of the cloud ear mushrooms growing in the outer boroughs. And there was something about finding the same ingredients that my grandfather used to cook with when I was a child growing up in Flushing, Queens. They were actually growing all around us, that makes me feel like when I’m walking through the city that I’m still in his kitchen.

One of the most sustainable abundant fruit that is going to be coming out in the next couple of weeks are mulberry trees. Mulberries, also called morus rubra or morus alba, the red mulberry or the white mulberry are prodigious fruiters. They produce so many copious amounts of berries that I sometimes have homeowners coming to me and saying, “Ava, is there any way to get this tree to stop fruiting?” I always have to tell them, “Just invite me and any of my forager friends and we’re happy to take these things off of your hands.” So this is just a small list of the wild edibles, of the kind of neglected food that’s growing all around the city over the course of this summer. And so I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little mini foray into eating wildly. And then I invite you all to eat wildly yourselves.

Organizations

Change Food
  • Ava Chin

    Author, Journalist, Poet The New York Times

    Writer Ava Chin is the former “Urban Forager” columnist for the New York Times, … Read More