Noted Japanese culture expert Risa Sekiguchi introduces us to an important ingredient in Japanese food. . . . . .
The delicate, white, long and slender enoki mushroom is almost as popular as the shiitake mushroom. The variety available in the West is creamy white, with stems as thin as spaghetti and round caps no bigger than ½” in diameter. While they have little flavor of their own, they absorb whatever flavor they are cooked in, and their distinctive shape is used to add interest to one pot dishes such as shabu shabu, and their springy and lively texture is a highlight in chawan mushi (savory custard.)
Eryngii (trumpet mushroom)
After discovering these somewhat sexy-looking mushrooms a few years ago, they’ve become my absolute favorite variety. What really stands out is not the flavor, which is rather plain, but the texture; meaty and juicy, with just the right amount of resistance to the bite. I would never miss red meat in my life if I could eat my fill of these. The best way to enjoy them is simply braised, which highlights their wonderful texture.
The name comes from the word “dancing,” which aptly describes the look of this delicate and frilly mushroom. In the world, they grow on oak and beech trees, and the undulating wavy brown “caps” grow en mass out of clumps of white stems, somewhat resembling oyster mushrooms. The soft, moist texture and dense, woodsy flavor are best enjoyed sautéed or used in clear broth soups. Maitake mushrooms can be found at Japanese grocery stores.
Known as the king of mushrooms for their superb, earthy and intense flavor, Matsutake mushrooms are found only in the wild, growing near the base of beech trees. Much prized for their ability to infuse their distinctive aroma in anything they touch, they are the most expensive variety of mushroom, often costing more than $50 an ounce. Recently, however, matsutake have been imported from other countries, including Morocco and Turkey, extending their season and putting them within reach of the average person.
This most popular variety of mushroom needs no introduction – it has made its way into the international culinary dictionary. Available fresh or dried, shiitake mushrooms are an essential staple ingredient for the Japanese pantry. Dried shiitake have a strong woodsy flavor and a substantial texture that holds up well to simmering in flavoring sauces or adding to one pot dishes such as Sukiyaki, while fresh shiitake has a delicate and slippery texture when cooked.
High in vitamins B and C, low in calories yet rich in flavor, it is one of Japan’s miracle foods, believed to prevent cancer and lead to a long life. Although dried shiitake are also available in Chinese grocery stores, where they are much cheaper, I prefer the flavor of the Japanese variety. They are available in plastic bags, and keep indefinitely in a cool, dark cupboard. Freezing them supposedly helps to preserve their rich flavor, but I’ve never met anyone who bothers to do so.
Almost as popular as the shiitake mushroom, the darling little button-like shimeji mushrooms are increasingly found in the west, particularly buna shimeji, named after a wild variety that grows at the base of decaying beech trees. Buna shimeji grows in bunches of tight clusters – each mushroom joined at the bottom, with white stems topped with brown caps no larger than 1/2” in diameter. They have little flavor or aroma of their own, but have a substiantially rich and meaty texture. Enjoyed in soups, stir-fried, or cooked in rice, they last for a fairly long time in the fridge, so they are easy to keep on hand.
Risa Sekiguchi hopes to spread the healthful and aesthetic virtues of food from her native country ― Japan ― to the wider world. She lives in Chicago with her husband Kirk, who takes most of the photographs for Savory Japan. They regularly travel to Japan to meet chefs and artisans, investigate new restaurants, visit kilns and studios and purchase stock for their online gallery for fine Japanese tableware, Mizuya.