From Dangerous to Delightful: Uchi's Moss Dish

The Matsutake dish at Uchi Houston includes a lichen (referred to colloquially as "reindeer moss") that requires special preparation to transform it from dangerous to delectable.
The Matsutake dish at Uchi Houston includes a lichen (referred to colloquially as "reindeer moss") that requires special preparation to transform it from dangerous to delectable.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

The string of text messages began with a photo. It was a plate of lovely, unidentifiable green puff balls accented with slices of mushrooms, grilled so precisely that there were criss-cross grill marks, just as one might see on a steak.

The photo and subsequent message were from an exuberant friend in the restaurant industry. We'll call him "Gordon." Gordon is, in fact, made of exuberance. He texts me only when he's excited about something, whether it be a costume party or a something else he thinks is fascinating. I shall paraphrase the conversation:

"This moss dish is at Uchi! It's poisonous if prepared incorrectly! Total delish!"

I search my feelings to find my motivation to eat poison. I am unsuccessful.

"And why are we eating poison moss, Gordon?" I hoped this text message was coming across in my Mom Voice.

"Because it's really exciting and it's really delicious. It isn't all hype. It is actually really amazingly good."

Hmm. I've had fugu, or blowfish, before. It was kind of bland but it didn't kill me. Uchi is a well-regarded, respectable restaurant that I trust. I realize it wouldn't be good for them if the next day's headlines read:

Local Food Writer Killed by Poisonous Moss Dish at Award-Winning Restaurant

So it's probably a fine dish. On the other hand, I was really busy, so I figured someone more ambitious than me would snap up the opportunity to eat poison. Okay, I admit it. I hoped someone else would try it before I did. Where's a food taster when you need one?

This story continues on the next page.  

Pillow-y, crunchy "reindeer moss" with kombu and purslane
Pillow-y, crunchy "reindeer moss" with kombu and purslane
Photo by Phaedra Cook

A week goes by and I get a reminder message from Gordon. I resign myself and start mentally preparing. I text back:

"When would you like to feed me poisonous moss? If I die, though, my editor is going to be very sad." (At least I hope she would be sad. At the very least, I hoped it would be a memorable inconvenience.) [Editor's note: She would be and it would be.]

"LOL. It doesn't kill you when it's done badly. It just makes you throw up."

"I know who I'm throwing up on."

We made our plans to meet at Uchi. I emailed my editor. "I'm going to go eat some poisonous moss now." "Okay!" she replied. "Don't die!"

Gordon and I made our way through a few courses, each at Uchi's standard level of excellence, before the moss was summoned.

I imagined how pissed my husband was going to be if I died. I envisioned the inscription on my tombstone:

Here Lies Phaedra Cook, Who Died Because She's an Idiot

I felt better when chef Nilton Borges Jr. of Uchi visited our table to explain the moss and the preparation. It is called "reindeer moss." That's not quite accurate, but "reindeer lichen" (scientific name: Cladonia rangiferina) doesn't sound nearly as sexy.

There are actually very few of this species of lichen that are truly poisonous. The problem is that they contain a strong acid that necessitates the careful preparation. Fail to do this, and Green Deane of "Eat the Weeds" warns:

"unprepared and uncooked they will painfully attack your digestive track. [sic] Unprepared lichen taste like aspirin. That should motivate you to prepare it correctly. Never eat unprepared and raw lichen unless your life truly depends upon it. It probably will not kill you but you will wish it had."

So, how did acidic moss become something high-end restaurants wanted to serve? Chef René Redzepi started using it at the über-foodie destination Noma in Copenhagen. As Noma goes, so does the rest of the restaurant world.

At Uchi, Borges was intrigued and eventually found a source for reindeer moss. Next, he researched the procedures on how to eliminate the acids, serve it safely and, most important, prepare it in an appealing way that makes it a culinary delight.

"It has to be treated for eight hours," he explains. "You first soak it in water with baking soda, which reduces the acid level. You have to change the water constantly. I change it every hour. At the end of the night, I soak it one last time and let it sit overnight. The next day, I'll do it one more time and then I blanch it for eight minutes on full boil. At that point, it's ready to be flash-fried."

The end result is a pillowy puffball of filament-like green fibers. The frilly green cloud is compelling in the way it rapidly compresses and evaporates to nearly nothing in the mouth, much like cotton candy. All that remains is a woodland note that walks hand in hand with the dense, grilled matsutake mushrooms.

The rest of the dish is rounded out with kombu (kelp) and purslane. There are pickled matsutake mushrooms, too, which add a pop of needed brightness and acidity to offset all the earthiness. All rests on a sauce made of chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon, eggs, kale and anchovies. I want a whole container of the sauce. I'd put it on everything from fish to eggs to tortilla chips.

What was the inspiration for this dish? Borges says, "I wanted to do a dish that resembles the earth, because matsutake grow near pine trees. I wanted to mimic that environment. The only thing that doesn't grow there is the kombu."

The texture is compelling, and yes, I would eat it again -- at least, I would at Uchi.

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