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Seasonal spotlight: Japanese mushrooms

November 15, 2010

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.

Matsutake on sale in Ueno for 5,000 yen

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.

Clockwise from top left: shimeji, enoki, maitake

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

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 1:00 pm

    Like you, I didn’t think I liked mushrooms when I was younger. Even after I realized I didn’t actually dislike them I wouldn’t have listed them as something I particularly liked prior to moving to Japan.. but there’s something special about the mushrooms native to this country that inspires deep adoration. 😀

    …well, except for nameko. But I’ve only ever had them in the context of neba-neba udon, which was not a fun experience for me. =/

    Like you, I love a variety of mushrooms based on their use. Shimeji is my default when I’m going for a more western dish and just need a generic mushroom. I also love to use them for a very garlicy oil or butter based pasta sauce, and for soup, or anything that requires more cooking. Enoki is best in nabe, but I love them with glass noodles and kimchee, and also straight up grilled with butter on the side of okonomiyaki, as you mentioned. Maitake is probably my favorite of the bunch, though it’s hard to really pick one. I love them as a filling for gyoza, tempura, in veggie burgers, etc.

    One of my favorite things about fall (which I am -almost- not ashamed to admit) is going to Tenya for a big fall-themed Yasai Ten-don with extra maitake. YUM.

    • November 17, 2010 8:59 pm

      Yes, why are Japanese mushrooms so good? (That’s too bad about the nameko though!) Shimeji really does work well in almost every Western food I’ve tried it with, including tacos. Enoki with glass noodles and kimchee sounds like a fantastic idea, as does using maitake in veggie burgers (never thought of that!)

      Don’t be ashamed! Tenya is the only tempura restaurant in the whole country that OFFERS an option without shrimp on their menu, which won them my love. They’re totally progressive!

      • November 17, 2010 10:01 pm

        Those Walnut Mushroom Spinach burgers I promised to share at some point have a maitake-base and are frickin’ amazing! >:)

        Oh, and I made those kimchee glass noodles for dinner tonight.. expect to see them on the blog at some point. They’re vaguely reminiscent of chige-nabe, only lighter and milder in flavor and with less soup. 😀

    • November 18, 2010 4:28 pm

      You forgot to rave about your favorites- eringi. :P” Esp. getting an order (or two) of ‘eringi butter’ at okonomiyaki.

      Personally, I only ever really had mushrooms in the states either in salad bars (which I usually didn’t eat) or on pizza, or maybe some Chinese or Thai stir fry, and was never all that big on them either. Until a couple of bad experiences involving sauteed mushrooms & way too much alcohol turned me off of them completely for a while, as I became convinced that any time I had mushrooms I’d throw up. >_<; Now, not so much. I think maitake is one of my default omelet ingredients for Saturday breakfasts. Tempura's probably my favorite, though.

  2. November 17, 2010 10:00 pm

    Those Walnut Mushroom Spinach burgers I promised to share at some point have a maitake-base and are frickin’ amazing! >:)

    Oh, and I made those kimchee glass noodles for dinner tonight.. expect to see them on the blog at some point. They’re vaguely reminiscent of chige-nabe, only lighter and milder in flavor and with less soup. 😀

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