Chaga is the Russian name for a hard fungal wood rot (technically not a mushroom) that you brew to make a drink resembling black tea or mocha coffee (without the caffeine). With milk or cream, chaga is somewhat mocha-flavored. Cookbook author Kim Hendrickson has made chaga ganache truffles with it and I've made "chagalot" ice cream. Friends have used chaga to make a tasty porter-like beer.
"Irina invites you to a cup of chaga tea"
Like many fungi, chaga is both flavorful and highly medicinal. If you grind the chaga (and not everyone bothers to do so), try using one to two times what you'd use for coffee, i.e., half a cup per quart. Many sources recommend a ratio of 1:5 chaga to water by weight, but by my calculations this would mean using up to two cups of ground chaga per quart! In any case, you can use chaga grounds at least twice.
Chaga is mostly known from Siberia but can also be found at high elevations in the Appalachian mountains. It grows on birch trees. The fungus also grows on other trees, but then it's not chaga and is not necessarily medicinal. There are also many things that can be mistaken for chaga (see here).
Chaga apparently absorbs and concentrates the immune compounds the tree sends to fight its infection. Chaga is apparently extremely rich in antioxidants, although frequent claims that it has by far the highest amount of any food on earth are, to my knowledge, unsubstantiated. Still, plenty of studies testify to its anti-cancer benefits. One customer has successfully treated her dog with it. Chaga also protects against radiation, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, nourishes the liver, and helps with hypoglycemia, and more. These are just it's scientifically-proven effects.
Most herbalists recommend simmering mushrooms to free up the polysaccharides (though I have heard that a "hard boil" can actually damage them). But chaga is not a mushroom; it's the fungal mycelium (more on this below). Some claim that it is not necessary to boil mycelium because it is only about 12% chitin. Paul Stamets does claim that the mycelium medicines he sells are more digestible. However, mycelium and mushrooms have the same amount of chitin (Joseph Allawos, personal communication, 11/5/12). Although one would expect the far less dense mycelia to take less time to break down, it may still require cooking.
The problem is that, according to Cass Ingram, the medicinal components of chaga include not only polysaccharides but proteins, sterols, SOD, and enzymes including catalase, peroxidase, RNAase, and DNAase, all of which are damaged or destroyed by temperatures above 180º. In that case, it's important, as with miso, not to boil chaga. Instead, use ground chaga and either steep or simmer it in hot but not boiling water, in a crock pot, for instance. Cass recommends several days. Whether it takes that long, I don't know, but I would do this twice and then either boil or brew (ferment) the chaga to get what's left, much like you'd reuse coffee grounds.
Chaga is a tonic, a "nutraceutical" food like garlic. Still, too much of anything is not good for you. It is possible, though unlikely, to "overdose" on chaga over time (source lost since).
Unlike most mushrooms, chaga takes many years to grow. That might mean there's more environmental impact from harvesting it. But keep in mind that chaga is not a mushroom. It's a canker rot, the product of a parasite that eventually kills the tree and itself. Mushrooms are the "fruit" of fungi in that they are the way fungi spread their "seeds," i.e., their spores. Chaga, on the other hand, is the herniated mycelium, i.e., the body of the fungus itself popping out of the tree, along with the heartwood its been eating. Not that any of this answers whether it's better for the earth to harvest chaga or to leave it alone. I think the best policy is just to try and make the most of the chaga you use.
Some people use only the inner part of the chaga, but judging from this study, the black outer "crust" is worth using as well. It certainly is the source of the pigments that go into the water, including the antioxidant compound melanin (as in Tuber melanosporum, the black truffle). If you prefer to not use the crust you can special order it whole.
Speaking of the gold part of this "black gold," many believe that Otzi, "The Iceman," the 5,300-year-old hunter-gatherer found in the Italian Alps in 1991, was carrying chaga. He wasn't. But he was carrying two other mushrooms that also grow on birch. One was the birch polypore, used for medicine and for sharpening knives. The other was Fomes fomentarius, which, like chaga, is also called "the tinder fungus" because both can be used to start fires. Fomes is also not to be confused with Styrofomes, which when melted releases styrene, benzene, and ethylene, all known carcinogens.
Speaking of healthier alternatives, according to The Lancet, Otzi also had tattoo marks that statistically correlate to standard acupuncture points. That's 2,000 years before the accepted birth of acupuncture (study and images here).Fomes, by the way, is also known as "amadou," as in Amadeus, which, like Dorothy or Theodore, means "love of God" (amare in Latin means "love"). Amadou can also be pounded into hats, which is one way to get through my thick skull. That's amoré!
Unlike the tinder fungus, chaga is not used as tinder but rather, as a "coal extender." The gold part of the chaga, when smoldering, can stay lit for days. In 2010, Luke Cannon used chaga to start a campfire. Before going to bed, he dropped the chaga in a cup of water, then poured it out and left it on the picnic table. The next morning, the chaga was still burning. Sounds like Hanukkah, or some of my old flames.
me and chaga on The Bizarre Food show
(about two-thirds into the segment)
Thanks a lot! The first pound lasted a long time. Since I started my dog on chaga and another alternative drug called LDN, her cysts have dramatically reduced in size and are not even noticeable now. She also had a small hard cyst on one ear which is now completely gone. I don't know if it's the chaga or the LDN or the combination of the two, but I am going to continue to give her both. She loves the taste of chaga tea and thinks it's a treat!
I have told a lot of people about you and the benefits of chaga. Thanks again!