Japan’s most coveted mushrooms

Along with truffles, morels, porcini and chanterelles, matsutake are among the most celebrated fungi in the world.

No other fungus has had thousands of poems spanning centuries devoted to its existence. Revered and loved by the Japanese, this “champion of autumn flavours” is a welcomed harbinger of summer’s end and fall’s beginning—the season for eating.

Matsutake, or “pine mushrooms,” are heavy and meaty wild mushrooms that can only be harvested in the first weeks of autumn. Wonderfully aromatic with a unique spiciness, the flavours dominate any dish they are cooked in. Despite having been part of Japanese cuisine for more than a thousand years, there are no known ways to cultivate this delicacy—meaning the only way to find some is to forage for wild ones, which is one reason for the hefty price tag. Hidden under trees on the forest floor, matsutake form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, with the Japanese Red Pine being the primary species under which you’ll find them in Japan. In other parts of the world, matsutake grow under other tree species, such as Douglas firs and Ponderosa Pinea. What’s more, each kind of tree will yield different flavours and characteristics in the mushrooms.

Matsutake can range in price from anywhere between $5 per kilogram and $2,000 per kilogram, depending on the place and time of harvest and the grade of the mushroom. The most desirable mushrooms have unbroken caps and unexposed gills, which are the characteristics of younger matsutake. Once the caps open up, prices can drop by as much as a third. As harvests in Japan are getting scarcer each year, the most highly rated and toppriced variations are domestic matsutake—and it is not uncommon to see them go for a whopping $200 per mushroom! However, these days, tasting matsutake won’t necessarily mean breaking the bank: declining harvests and unmet demands in Japan began an exportation race in other parts of the world, and a saturated market for imported matsutake has been driving down prices. And while some people believe that the North American varieties are less aromatic than the Japanese matsutake, others say that you can’t tell the difference.

shutterstock_59906680

Because of their strong aroma, just a little bit goes a long way when cooking with these powerful mushrooms. If you get your hands on some of these gems, make sure not to wash them, because this will take away much of the precious aroma and flavours. Instead, scrape off a thin layer of the skin with a knife. Matsutake gohan (matsutake rice) is one of the most traditional ways to cook with mat- sutake, and the dish amply accentuates their clean and earthy aroma with a crisp and satisfying texture. Using fresh rice (shinmai) harvested around the same time as the mushrooms will give the texture another level of complexity. Simply add rice, dashi, a little bit of soy sauce and some matsutake into a rice cooker, then let it steam for about ten minutes after the rice is cooked before serving. Or, for the true mushroom lover, simply lightly sauté your matsutake in butter to get the full flavour experience.


A little taste of matsutake

In 1938, a Japanese scientist isolated compounds in matsutake and identified methyl cinnamate as being behind its distinctive aroma. This compound is also found in strawberries and Sichuan peppers.

  • Matsutake are harvested in China,
  • Korea, and parts of Canada and the United States. These varieties are sold at a much lower price than the ones cultivated in Japan.
  • The top-grade and most prized
  • matsutake come in individual boxes and are popular wedding and business gifts.
  • For fresh matsutake, check out Sanko Trading Co. in downtown Toronto, or try visiting your local Asian market. Just make sure to go while the mushrooms are in season.