Near Japantown, I saw a veritable army of grocery shoppers, aside from the bags bulging with their purchases, nestled lovingly at the top so as not to get squashed were packages containing matsutake mushrooms. Without fail, every bag paraded past me had some of these beauties peaking from the top. Needing little encouragement, I wandered into the Japanese grocery store and there on prominent and loving display was a case of matsutake mushrooms. As I purused the selection, I noticed that they were each graded and priced accordingly. I learned that these autumn delicacies are highly prized for their aroma and flavor.
A Harbinger of Fall
Like apples signal fall in the US, the wild matsutakes deliver the season of chestnuts and gingko, persimmons and the new rice crop for the folks of Japan. The pine (matsu) mushroom (take), for the Japanese, inspires excitement at the transition to fall with thoughts of savoring its pungent flavor. It is said that one cooks the matsutake until one can eat the aroma.
In that regard, the matsutake resembles the truffle, which lends its perfume to any preparation it encounters. A broth with several slices of a pine mushroom is served in a lidded bowl or pot, for example, so that the scent of earthy pine with a tinge of cinnamon swirls within the container until it is finally released.
This mushroom has an unmistakable fragrance, that is sweet and spicy with a hint of cinnamon. It is an all purpose meaty mushroom capable of substituting for any kind of mushroom the recipe requires. Really its hard to go wrong with the options this mushroom offers up.
Matsutake are excellent in soups, or as many Japanese food lovers do, they favor the mushrooms just grilled with a dash of salt and pepper. If you are grilling them, do not step away or get distracted, they cook quickly, and are done with the gills take on a toasted-golden color. Another winning way to serve the grilled matsutake is with a dipping sauce made of equal portions soy sauce and a mild rice vinegar, or a combination of mild rice vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice. Groan inducing good is what I call it.
Matsutakes are meaty like porcinis and portobellos. The large ones have steak-like caps and thick stems. The flavor and size directly correlate so the bigger the mushroom the more intense the flavor. Too big, and the the mushroom risks overwhelming some foods such as stir-fries or soups. Its best to start conservatively and add until you achieve the desired balance and intensity. They are priced according to their size with the smallest being 1st class.
The Japanese favor the smaller matsutakes, so-called No. 1’s or 1st class (as in the image below), with enclosed caps (no visible gills). These are prized for their beauty and are given as gifts. The most expensive matsutakes come from red pine forests in Japan. It’s not unusual to see one perfect mushroom sell for hundreds of dollars. “Everyday” matsutake mushrooms can sell for about $30 for a quarter of a pound. Because the native Japanese forests cannot produce enough matsutakes to meet demand, Japan imports them from the Pacific Northwest and Korea.
“In a broth … when you open the lid, you see the beautiful view of the season inside the bowl. When you open the lid of the bowl, you smell the fragrance,” says cooking teacher Hiroko Sugiyama.
A ritual of the matsutake season is the preparation of a sukiyaki — the Japanese version of a hot pot — in the woods during a hunt. Meats and vegetables are cooked gently in a seasoned broth. Sugiyama’s fall version includes marbled beef slices, green onions, tofu, carrots, burdock root, matsutake, chrysanthemum leaves and Chinese cabbage. The broth is a combination of dashi (fish stock), sake, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and a touch of sugar. Heady stuff.
Why Limit Yourself?
While the focus of these mushrooms is from the perspective of the Japanese palate. These meaty mushrooms hold their own with a chicken or roast and give the ubiquitous portabello or porcini a run for its money.
At local farmers markets, professional foragers stack bins brimming with matsutakes to sell. Restaurants feature the mushroom sautéed, steamed, simmered, batter-fried, grilled.
In the North American Pacific Northwest Tricholoma magnivelare is found in coniferous forests made up of any combination of the following species: Douglas fir, Noble Fir, Shasta Red Fir, Sugar Pine, Ponderosa Pine, or Lodgepole Pine. In California and parts of Oregon, it is also associated with hardwoods, including Tanoak, Madrone, Rhododendron, Salal, and Manzanita. In northeastern North America, the mushroom is generally found in Jack Pine forests. T. magnivelare is typically called White Matsutake as it lacks the brown coloration of the Asian specimen.
Like most mushrooms, harvesting is the simple part, finding the matsutake is the challenge, resulting in a steep price. Domestic production of matsutake in Japan has been sharply reduced over the last 50 years due to a pine disease which had an adverse impact on the price. The annual harvest of matsutake in Japan is now less than 1,000 tons, and the Japanese mushroom supply is largely made up by imports from China, Korea, the North American Pacific Northwest, and Northern Europe. The price for matsutake in the Japanese market is highly dependent on quality, availability, and origin. The Japanese matsutake at the beginning of the season, which is the highest grade, can go up to $2,000 per kilogram. In contrast, the average value for imported matsutake is about $90 per kilogram. I see a business opportunity for some intrepid fungiculturist.
Party Like its 1999
A break for all matsutake lovers came in 1999. That year, N. Bergius and E. Danell reported that Swedish (Tricholoma nauseosum) and Japanese matsutake (T. matsutake) were one and the same. The report led to increased imports of matsutake from Northern Europe to Japan because of the comparable flavor and taste.
So if you’ve not yet tried these beauties, I suggest giving them a try. Depending on your proximity to a Japanese market they may be challenging to find fresh. Finding them dried, is easier. A simple google search yields multiple options.
Cooking Matsutake Mushrooms – Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Songi gui (송이구이), grilled matsutake in Korean cuisine