Wood Ear Salad ft. Pickled Chili (Liangban Mu’er, 凉拌木耳)


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Wood Ear Salad

Introducing Cloud Ear Fungus

If I ever make a Chinese dinner spread with more than 4-5 dishes, 凉拌木耳 (liángbàn mù’ěr) wood ear salad is probably on the table. It’s served at room temperature, meaning I don’t need to time the cooking and plating. It’s fast to prepare on its own, so I can even get away with it as an afterthought. And it relies almost completely on shelf-stable pantry ingredients, so I always have them on hand.

As a side dish, wood ear salad is sufficiently different to complement anything nicely. It’s slightly crunchy, but not from frying or baking, so it goes well with soft foods. It’s served with a wet dressing, so it goes well with dry foods. It’s cool and unspiced, so it offsets hot and spicy foods. It’s fresh, but not raw, and it’s a fungus, but not a mushroom—so there’s never anything else too similar.

As plug-and-play dishes go, a good wood ear salad never lets me down.

a green plate filled with a wood ear salad
Tender, gelatinous cloud ear fungus pairs well with pickled chilies for color and juiciness

How to Use Dried Wood Ear Fungus

Dried 黑木耳 (hēi mù’ěr) black wood ear fungus lasts indefinitely in a cool, dry place. They’re often packaged as small, dense bricks (barely half the width of an adult palm) that expand dramatically when reconstituted in water. Generic kinds include lot of smaller pieces and woodier “stems” that need to be trimmed from the soaked fungus before using.

Wood ear must be soaked in cool water to rehydrate and boiled before using. In a pinch, warm soaking water can work, but the hotter the water, the more unevenly the fungus rehydrates. Soaking wood ear in water that is too hot or boiling them in water for too long will make the fungus tougher. This may not be too noticeable with coarser, run-of-the-mill wood ear, but premium wood ear is favored for its delicate texture and benefits from careful preparation. It’s better to wait for the fungus to naturally rehydrate and expand than try to speed it along with hot water.

Our new 云耳 (yúněr) cloud ear fungus is a top-grade wood ear fungus that is smaller, thinner, lighter and more tender than your average black wood ear fungus. The fungus does not come vacuum packed together in a brick, meaning they reconstitute faster into whole pieces and lack the torn bits and pieces that often accompany the densely packaged version. They also cook up faster, and none of the “stems” are tough enough to require sorting and trimming.

Cooked wood ear must be eaten the same day it is prepared. Mala Mama has always warned me not to let wood ear sit as leftovers due to the surface toxins it develops once rehydrated. It may not look or taste like it to you or me, but cooked wood ear will begin to spoil within 24 hours. So only prepare as much as you need!

One universal quality among wood ear varieties is that they must be thoroughly rinsed and washed before boiling. Our cloud ear contains much less sediment and “stuff” than generic wood ear, but you’ll notice that the first couple changes of soaking water are still cloudy. I like to use a couple changes of water when soaking, rinsing the fungus in between rounds. By the third change of water, it’s generally very clear.

Chinese cooking tip: a splash of white vinegar in the soaking water makes the fungus cook up crisper!

Boil our premium cloud ear fungus for about 2 minutes. Generic wood ear fungus are larger and coarser, so they may require closer to 3-5 minutes. Strain and rinse the boiled wood ear under cold water to stop the cooking, and discard the boiling water. Your wood ear is now ready to use in stir fries and salads!

Like many liangban salads, the dressing note is primarily sour. The acid usually comes from black vinegar, but pickled chilies are a great natural complement if you have them available. Their juiciness and ripe tang really bring out the freshness of the cloud ear, and the pop of color is just as important as their flavor!

If you don’t have pickled chilies on hand, I’ve used finely minced red bell pepper in the past. Some people also like to add chopped white or red onion to the salad. Whatever you do, don’t serve a drab wood ear salad you can’t also eat with your eyes.

birds eye view of wood ear salad on plate
A 15-gram serving of our dried cloud ear fungus goes a long way as a simple side salad

For more vegetarian liangban salad ideas, check out my favorite Spicy Daikon and Carrot Liangban or Michelle Zhao’s Crunchy Lotus Root Salad!

Pickled Chili Wood Ear Salad (Liangban Mu’er, 凉拌木耳)

By: Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking


  • 15 grams dried cloud ear fungus approx. level ⅓ cup of loose cloud ear
  • 2-3 small cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
  • 15-20 grams paojiao (approx. 1 small pickled chili pepper or ½ large one), thinly sliced
  • ½ tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar (Baoning preferred)
  • ½ teaspoon Chinese toasted sesame oil (Cuizi preferred)
  • pinch sugar approx. 1/16 teaspoon
  • pinch salt approx. 1/16 teaspoon, to taste
  • pinch MSG optional
  • handful fresh cilantro leaves, washed and dried


  • In a medium bowl, add the dried cloud ear fungus and fill halfway with cool water. After 10-15 minutes, check that the expanding fungus is still covered by water. If not, add enough water to cover. At the 30 minute mark, gently agitate the fungus in the water and scrub lightly with your fingers to loosen up any sediment. Rinse clean and add new water, repeating the process, until the soaking water remains clear after agitating.
    Continue to soak for 1.5 hours total, until fungus has fully opened and feels soft and pliable. If using a wood ear variety other than young cloud ear, soak for 2 hours instead.
  • Drain the rehydrated cloud ear and bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the cloud ear for 2 minutes (if using other wood ear, cook for 3-5 minutes depending on size). You do not want a rolling boil.
    Strain the cloud ear and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
  • In a small bowl, mix together the dressing ingredients (garlic, chili, soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, salt, MSG). In a medium bowl, add the cilantro to the cooked wood ear and pour in the dressing. Toss to mix. Plate and serve immediately or chill in fridge until desired.


Make only enough wood ear you can eat the same day. Do not soak wood ear for longer than 8 hours. Rehydrated wood ear is prone to growing a surface toxin if it sits for a long time (e.g. overnight).

Tried this recipe?

About Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

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