Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Magic Mushroom Seasoning

This post to be filed under: Asian Foods I Grew Up With and Never Questioned the Provenance or Chemical Composition Of Until Very Recently. (Should come right after Haw Flakes).

Somewhere in the mid-to-late-80s, my Vietnamese mother caught on to the evils of Monosodium Glutamate. It was clear that MSG had to go, but there seemed to be no adequate substitute. Regular salt didn't have that extra little je ne sais quoi, the quoi now rapturously popularized as umami or the Fifth Taste. Soy sauce had that added depth but could sometimes be overpowering in both color and taste.  Nuoc mam, or fish sauce, had a pungency that required it to be used only sparingly.

Infinitely resourceful and a woman of great cunning, Mrs. Thao, as she is known in certain milieus, investigated the back alleys of Chinatown and penetrated the fluorescent obscurantism of Japantown's mini-malls.

Her golden discovery was this: Natural Mushroom Seasoning, Alternative Substitute for MSG and Chicken Essence.

For years I watched her sprinkle the tiny, tawny pellets into soups and stir-fries. After I moved out, she would always give me a jar of what I came to call the "magic mushroom seasoning." I never saw the original packaging. The mysterious substance would appear in old containers that once housed western spices and condiments with "mushroom seasoning" scrawled in my mother's singularly illegible handwriting on paper scraps scotch-taped around their middles or to their lids.

Then in my mom's spice cupboard I found this McCormick Family Size parsley container, with a printed label version of MUSHROOM SEASONING affixed cunningly, ransom-letter style, below the now-misleading brand name and just above "flakes," so as to suggest an entirely new product: McCormick Mushroom Seasoning Flakes (Perejil Picado). The unsuspecting eye would think this was just another regular seasoning, to be found innocuously in the Safeway spice aisle between Marjoram and Paprika.

One day recently, I finally cornered her. "Mom," I said. "I'm over thirty years old. A grown woman. Kind of. I think it's time I knew what this so-called mushroom seasoning really is and how to procure it myself."

She looked at me for a few seconds. "I don't remember where I got it. Somewhere on Clement St. probably."

I stared back at her, mind working. "It's MSG isn't it? I knew it. If it is, I can handle it. I promise. I won't tell the others."

Wordlessly, Mrs. Thao turned her back on me and walked into the pantry. She squatted to the floor and moved aside a 10 lb sack of rice. A flurry of plastic grocery bags, pocket packs of Kleenex, a box of expired Advil Cold & Sinus, and bags of green tea leaves and dehydrated black mushrooms flew past her head and landed at my feet. Finally, I heard the heavy rustle of thick foil packaging.

Hair tousled around her head like a floating bird's nest, my mother handed me that which I coveted: the original packaging of the now infamous magic mushroom seasoning:

A fascinating glut of information confronted me. My eye knew not which path to follow first. Buddhist swastikas, the regally pale daikon, the triple-decker Chinese-English-Vietnamese product name. From whence did it originate? What did the slightly ominous "SETSCO Test No (Chinese characters): W2136001" mean? Was this an experimental product, not yet legal on the U.S. market? Or did "GENERATION II" mean second generation, so more advanced and more healthful and tastier than the original incarnation? "No M.S.G.," "Cholesterol FREE," 0% of something in Chinese probably bad like MSG or cholesterol, the yellow triangle in the upper left corner assured me. I was informed that there were both calcium & Vitamin B lingering in this salty dust. And plus or minus 400 g of it in one package. But what kind of mushrooms were in this "mushroom" seasoning? Were those shitakes? What were all those other vegetables doing in the photo? Had they been involved in the flavoring too?

More of the mystery unraveled across the back of the package.

Here I learned of the technological prowess that had gone into developing this super seasoning:

"Using modern technology and special technique of extracting the relevant ingredients from mushroom, we are able now to enjoy the natural seasoning tasting as a substitute to MSG."

And finally, what I most burned to know--the ingredients:

Mushroom powder, Salt, Mushroom extract, Vitamin B, Calcium.

But far from resolving the mystery, this list only opened the door onto another, more disturbing, labyrinth, like a sparkling David Bowie beckoning me ever deeper. For not only were these just the "Main ingredients," suggesting that there were untold numbers of minor players left uncredited, but even more importantly, the kind of mushroom was not specified. And why did the mushroom have to be acted upon by "modern technology and special technique" to be divided into "powder" and "extract," leaving some other mushroom parts unaccounted for? Why had Vitamin B and calcium been deemed the most appropriate nutritional supplements?

I knew more answers would be found with the product's manufacturer, but even this avenue of inquiry led to a cipher wrapped in a riddle. . . all covered in secret sauce. My magic mushroom seasoning was a Product of Singapore, packed by Po Lo Ku Trading company, which also seemed to be in Singapore. But then there was also this other entity, HSinwell Co., Ltd, which seemed to belong to the next line of all-caps: TAIPEI TAIWAN. But then what was this "Vegetalk Food Supplies Pte Ltd (Singapore)" listed at the very bottom? I figured that "Ltd" was "limited" but what was "Pte"?

I should never have opened this Pandora's Box. My mother had tried to protect me. My head spun and I felt faint. The words swirled around my head in a terrible hallucinogenic cloud. Everything took on a deep purple tinge. To steady myself, I took a metal top out of my pocket and watched it spin madly on the table, reassuring myself of the reality of the situation. It wobbled and fell, and I knew there was yet another level of information to be mined. 

The Internet took me by the hand and led me to the site of one Po Lo Ku. It turned out to be a registered trademark of the Hsin Sui Industry Co., a Taiwanese company (remember the "HSinwell Co., Ltd" on the packaging? Close enough...). The Singapore connection is through the exporter, Vegetalk Food Supplies Pte Ltd ("Pte" stands for Private, as in the very VIP exclusive sounding "Vegetalk Food Supplies Private Limited"). Incidentally, the Vegetalk website has an amazing tiled menu that features tiny vegetables that slide into view when your mouse passes over them (the radicchio and bok choy are my favorites).

Back on the Poloku website, an October 2007 press release announcing the introduction of its mushroom seasoning into India's markets offered some illuminating highlights. Company sales manager Hung-Te Sheu touts the texture of what seems to be their star product as superior to mere mushroom powders, boasting:

"The mushroom seasoning sold in the granulated form is unlike the powder form that gets soogy due to the humidity in India. The mushroom seasoning can be exposed to air for about five days and yet remains crisp." 

Through my various researches I was further able to ascertain that the mushrooms used are in fact shitake, though of a "special breed":

"The company is delivering a special breed shitake mushrooms into concentrated dices acting as a replacement to aginomoto." 

"Aginomoto" is a charming synonym for MSG. I also learned that the mushroom intensity can be varied according to desire:

"We make client-based mushroom seasoning. Some clients demand more mushroom content while other's want less. We are involved in B2C (Business to client) so far." 

If there remains a single person who is unconvinced of the superiority of mushroom seasoning to aginomoto/MSG, here is Hung-Te's further testimony:

"You feel thirsty after consuming MSG products but after using the mushroom seasoning in their food, customers have given the feedback that they do not feel thirsty." 

The press release leaves us with a final endorsement of the magical allure of their seasoning:

"Poloku mushroom seasoning has thus been able to retain the original sweetness and freshness of the mushroom and gives the most alluring taste if blended with the richness of one's food."

I hadn't ever considered the sweetness of mushrooms, but perhaps that was the secret to the seasoning's textured flavor, an almost supersensory sweetness underpinning the savory. After returning from down the rabbit hole, I realize it looks the same, tastes the same, may still have the same amount of unknown harmful chemicals. I continue to sprinkle my soups and stir-fries with my magic mushroom seasoning. Am I persisting in dangerous ignorance or have I reached the practical limits of my knowledge about the origins of my food and acting as best I can considering what I have learned? Or should we stop talking about mushroom seasoning and just enjoy it, in the spirit of Jonathan Richman when he sings:

"He gave us the wine to taste
not to talk about it
He gave us the wine to taste
and not to discuss
so let's taste it, let's taste it
don't criticize it and waste it"


Anonymous said...

i want to follow david bowie into the shroomland! i'm definitely going to look out for this at the asian store. i'm surprised my mom hasn't discovered it

Anonymous said...

also i just had haw flakes for the first time since i was a kid the other day and it was delish! alas it'll be another 10 years before it's safe for my body to consume again

Woolly Mammoth said...

'Clien-based mushroom seasoning' sounds strangely ominious.
It also seems like Mrs Thao snipped the blue 'Mushroom Seasoning' phrase off the original packaging and taped it onto the McCormick bottle? So many mysteries unsolved, I need to know more. I'll have to take a walk to my nearest Asian store in search of these magic granules very soon.

kale daikon said...

Lady avocado: your mom *definitely* knows about this. She just hasn't told you.

My dear Woolly: yes, that Mushroom Seasoning label was what first tipped me off to Mrs. Thao's possession of the original packaging. I'm sure the magic has found its way onto your British isle as well...

Adam Ahmed said...

Best post ever.

kale daikon said...

Adam! You make best quality comment!! Thank you. I feel a great joy washing over me.

Anonymous said...


Your meddling ways have opened a deftly sealed vault of "ancient Boss Lady secrets" that goes back many years.

Watch your back...stay out of Tenderloin alleyways...don't spend to much time reading the back of packaging at the asian market..and definitely don't linger when walking through the kitchen of Mission Chinese to use the restroom.

The word is out on you Daikon. Asian cooks across the city have you marked. They are agile and have sharp knives....

kale daikon said...

I am not scared of sharp knives. Consider this a vegi-leak.

Anonymous said...

The extract is a fake from the real Po Lo Ku product:

Tina said...

Last year,I bought the same packet of mushroom seasoning powder too.It was just too good to be true and I checked the Taiwan website and they warned that this is the fake poloku seasonging. They also showed a comparison of the real and fake packets. Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is, what the heck is Aloe Vera Seasoning, and why would anyone want to use it? Do my sunburns have tastebuds? Heaven forfend!

Unknown said...

wow this was so involved in the best way. just for fun, "po lo ku" as it's written there means "pineapple mushroom"

and the name of the product in chinese :

fragrant mushroom (shitake) pellet/grain flavor-adjustment material

Anonymous said...

Base on my knowledge in Taiwan, Po Lo Ku brand mushroom seasoning has been widely used in hospital kitchens. The doctor from Taiwan Adventist Hospital even recommend their diabetic patients to use this product.

I don't know what ingridients the fake Po Lo ku used, harmful? maybe.

Please refer to http://www.poloku.com/08news/02news_content.php?id=26

this is the link of Hsin Sui's disclaimer regarding counterfeits.

Po Lo Ku also has a fan page on facebook.

Lillian said...

Thank you for posting this. Your experience with this mushroom seasoning matches mine pretty much exactly, down to calling it "magic."

What do you make of the counterfeit brand(s)? At the grocery store here, I recently found packages made in Taiwan and in Singapore (like the one you have pictured in your post). Aaaaand, of course, I bought the Singapore one because I didn't know there was any difference.

lorrwill said...

Great post. I found you searching for the elusive mushroom seasoning and found a wealth of knowledge. I went the poloku site and found the PDF of ingredients.

Most suspect is sodium'5-guanylate which sounded suspiciously like another name for MSG to me. Wiki says it isn't MSG, but often used with it and not usually alone without it.


I will let everyone draw their own conclusions.

Me, I will be making up something of my own. It will start with me grinding some shitake and seaweed...

kale daikon said...

thanks everyone for all your Internet and in-store sleuthing. The plot thickens, it seems. I want to believe in magic but maybe it's too good to be true? And I still don't know how to recognize the counterfeits. I think we need to summon a chemist to the case to verify the non-MSG quality of this "sodium 5-guanylate"...

Anonymous said...

This granule mushroom seasoning is really magical. I make homemade soup from scratch with chicken or beef stock and the difference in taste after adding the seasoning is amazing'

Unknown said...

So, I too enjoy the many pleasures of this incredible "stuff". I happened upon this page today when I wanted to find out what the heck ASP is. It is listed in the ingredients. Does anyone know?

By the way, my package does not list disodium guanylate.

Anonymous said...

Okay, but how do people use it & in what proportions?

Anonymous said...

A few commentators have said they've seen, or have, the list of ingredients, but none of them so far has listed all the ingredients for the rest of us to see, only "questionable" ingredients. Someone please list all the ingredients so the rest of us may know what they are. Thank you.

kale daikon said...

I can't answer any questions about the somewhat ominous ingredient list that I haven't already written about but I can speak to the proportions: "to taste." Just like using salt. Start with a pinch or a teaspoon and keep tasting and adding until your taste is satisfied.

Anonymous said...

I came to your post on another quest. I was watching a TV Show of "The Best Things I Ever Ate" and they had the Boiling Crab restaurant on, and they were showing how they made the boiled shrimp there. They listed the ingredients as they went along, but naturally at the end, show a "secret ingredient". I was searching for something that resembled the look of it. I may have found it, but I'm not sure....

mentorbritain said...

I ran out of mushroom seasoning and I am forced to buy one but I found out that the ones that I'm using is not available in the market. Then I happened to check the imported section of a mall in Cagayan De Oro City, Philippines and saw the mushroom seasoning gamchimi.

I would like to know the ingredients of this seasoning because my daughter is very sensitive with some chemicals. I hope you will be able to give me information about this. Is this a pure mushroom? or some ingredients are mixed in it?

I will be waiting for your reply.

Thank you so much...

kale daikon said...

Hello mentorbritain,

I am no expert, but my hunch is that there are plenty of other ingredients mixed in with the mushroom. What they are exactly remains a mystery to me. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful!