Seasonal spotlight: Japanese mushrooms
I was a really picky eater when I was young – I think the most exotic thing I ate up until the age of fifteen or so was probably a grilled cheese sandwich, and the only vegetables I remember eating are green beans, broccoli, and green salad. I especially remember hating mushrooms, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure that the only type of mushrooms I ever encountered were the raw, spongy, flavorless kind at salad bars and atop restaurant salads.
I grew to like mushrooms after tasting them prepared in different ways at different types of ethnic restaurants. But I grew to love mushrooms after coming to Japan and being confronted with a selection of mushrooms unlike anything I had ever seen. In my experience the average Japanese supermarket has at least ten different kinds of mushrooms to choose from and all of them are good.
Traditionally mushrooms are an autumn food, and matsutake mushrooms are still one of the most recognizable symbols of fall in Japan. These mushrooms which are available only for a short time everywhere are extremely expensive and almost irrationally prized. Apparently this is because matsutake are quite hard to find, which makes people willing to pay a premium to eat them once a year.
In contrast, most other kinds of Japanese mushrooms are easily cultivated, affordable, and are now available throughout the entire year. As much as I like the idea of seasonal eating I admit that I would be pretty sad if I had to limit my mushroom intake to the fall season.
In the spirit of autumn here’s a rundown of the most common types of Japanese mushrooms. Most of these are actually available in the United States from Pacific Rim Mushrooms and some other brands, although I don’t know what’s on sale in other English-speaking countries. If they’re available at your grocery store I highly recommend trying them either in a Japanese- or Western-style dish – like most mushrooms, it’s almost impossible to make them taste bad.
Shimeji have a subtle but rich flavor and a rather chewy texture. I consider them the most basic mushroom and tend to use them when I don’t want an overwhelming mushroom taste, but I often mix them with other mushrooms as well. At my house we put them in nabe (hot pot dishes), cook them into rice, stir-fry them with other vegetables, or throw them in miso soup. I’ve even put them in tacos. And like most mushrooms they’re extremely good with a little butter – shimeji cooked in butter with onions, garlic, and black pepper makes a simple but fantastic pasta sauce.
Maitake in Japanese means “dancing mushroom.” Their smell and flavor are more pronounced and earthy than shimeji, which makes them good to use in different kinds of soups or stir fries. Most of the time I don’t bother cutting maitake apart because it’s more fun to gently rip them apart by hand. Although maitake are always available in grocery stores, if you’re lucky you’ll sometimes run across the wild kind that is a lot bigger and a bit more expensive too.
Enoki are long, thin white mushrooms with a peculiar sweet smell. It takes only the slightest amount of heat to wilt them, and I like to stir fry them gently before putting them atop salad or udon noodles. They’re also good in miso soup and hot pot dishes. Many okonomiyaki restaurants also have “enoki bacon” (enoki grilled in butter and slices of bacon) on their menu, which makes a good (if slightly decadent) accompaniment to a glass of beer.
Shiitake is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the Japanese mushrooms overseas. Shiitake (and maitake) are being studied for the cancer fighting properties, but are also used in a variety of ways in Japanese cuisine. Fresh shiitake are put into miso soup or egg custard, while dried shiitake are incorporated into a wide variety of simmered dishes or used to make vegetarian soup stock. And since they have a somewhat meaty taste and texture, they’re often used in vegetarian Buddhist cuisine or macrobiotic dishes.
While few people truly despise the mushrooms described above, nameko have a naturally slimy texture that sharply divides people between loving and hating this particular mushroom. They are often sold in small packs as shown in the photo to the left with plenty of included slime that isn’t usually washed off before using them.
However, wild nameko like the kind my husband’s mother occasionally sends us are larger and less slimy, although they will still turn off anyone who doesn’t enjoy that particular texture. I confess that the only way I’ve ever eaten nameko is in miso soup, usually with cubs of silken tofu. They can also be mixed with grated daikon radish and eaten with soy sauce.
Japanese mushroom recipes from other blogs and websites
- Japanese noodles with shimeji mushrooms from Steamy Kitchen
- Soba noodles with maitake mushrooms from About.com: Whole Foods Cooking
- Bacon-wrapped enoki from Food & Wine
- Sweet shiitake pickle from the New York Times
- Shimeji Risotto from soFeminine
- Purple potatoes with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms from Simply Recipes
- Maitake mushroom & asparagus stir fry from Eden Organic
- Miso soup with nameko from Bento.com
- Quinoa & maitake mushroom pilaf from Hungry Cravings