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Cordyceps is real, and you can buy it in Chinatown—for a price

Cordyceps sit in a jar at Chung Chou City Inc. in Chinatown on March 13, 2023. While recently popularized by the HBO show Last of Us, Cordyceps have been used for their medicinal properties for thousands of years. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Anyone who’s all caught up on HBO’s The Last of Us will have been thoroughly grossed out by the parasitic fungus cordyceps, which, in the show, turned most of humanity into hideous zombies and led to a cannibal-filled apocalypse.

However, that genus of fungus also exists in our decidedly non-post-apocalyptic timeline, where it can also be shockingly expensive. Cooks and the fungi-curious can find cordyceps in Chinese medicine stores throughout San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

While they’re certainly terrifying, the scenes depicting what a mutated strain of cordyceps does to human hosts are not the least bit realistic.

Kenny Lau, an en expert in Chinese medicine, stands in the Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Exhibition Hall in Chinatown on March 13, 2023. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

In Chinese, the word cordyceps translates to 蟲草 (chung chou), which means “insects and grass.” It is a small, slim and gold-colored fungus commonly used in simmering soups in Cantonese cooking, which is still the dominant cuisine in San Francisco. In recent years, though, cordyceps has become a lot more popular—and consequently, its price has soared.

“When I started my career in the ’80s, cordyceps were very affordable,” said Kenny Lau, a Chinese medicine expert in Chinatown and the chairman of the Chinese Herb Trade Association of America. “But now, its price is sky-high.”

Lau explained that cordyceps normally grows in high-altitude areas like Tibet or Qinghai province of China, from winter to summer. Its relative rarity and the over-harvesting have made the fungus extremely precious now.

Though ghoulishly popularized by HBO's "The Last of Us," practitioners of Chinese medicine regard cordyceps as helpful for lung and kidney health. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

In the Chung Chou City shop on Stockton Street in Chinatown, which specializes in selling different types of cordyceps, a glass jar of the Tibetan variety reveals an eye-popping price tag of some $26,999 per pound. Others go for more than $30,000 per pound.

Of course, these specimens are also dry and near-weightless. And much cheaper varieties can be had elsewhere in California as well.

The staff at Chung Chou City said that the store partners with Tibetan farmers to source quality cordyceps, which many people buy for its health benefits.

@sfstandard If you’re watching HBO’s “The Last of Us,” you’ve probably heard of cordyceps. In the show, a fictionalized, parasitic version of the fungus is responsible for a zombie apocalypse. In reality, however, cordyceps have been a part of Chinese medicine for over 700 years—and instead of turning you into a flesh-eating clicker…are actually believed to make you healthier. #cordyceps #fungi #lastofus #sfstandard #sfchinatown #tiktok #fyp ♬ Aesthetic – Tollan Kim

Lau said Chinese medicine teaches that cordyceps is good for the lung and kidneys and also improves general health long term. People brew it into tea or just smash it into powder to eat. He said the fungus is great, but admitted it’s not worth its current high price.

At the brand-new Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Exhibition Hall (北美常用中藥展覽館) in Chinatown, cordyceps is prominently displayed with hundreds of other herbs.

“We have been using cordyceps for over 700 years,” Lau said. “People see the value of it now.”

Han Li can be reached at
Morgan Ellis can be reached at