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Friday, August 29, 2014

Edible Japanese Mushrooms

If you've ever been to Japan, chances are better than average that someone there would have come up and asked you if you wanted some mushrooms that they had just picked.(see image above - photo by FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands).

The answer to such a question, however, should be "No."

The Japanese seem to have a fascination for mushrooms—in that they love to go out and commune with nature on a Sunday, and pick some wild mushrooms from some forested area.

The thing is... along with some of the most amazing and aromatic mushrooms one could devour, there are a quite a few that will either cause you to trip, to be ill, or to die. Even for many a so-called expert, determining good mushrooms from bad is tricky.

I recall one teacher coming back with a huge basket of various mushrooms... offering them to the teachers - myself included... but luckily the science teacher and avid mushroomer was there and aside from four out of about 250 mushrooms, they were all toxic.

Needless to say, no one took any of those four remaining mushrooms - just in case, and a couple of other teachers had to be chased down and warned about the mushrooms they had taken earlier from the generous but lucky(?) teacher.

As a public service in anticipation of mushroom picking in Japan at some future date, and for your own well-being, I'm going to present lists... because of everyone loves lists... starting with this one: Edible Japanese Mushrooms that won't do anything except spruce up a meal and tantalize the taste buds or maybe cure what ails you.

First of, mushrooms, when written in Japanese, will have the suffix - words ending with - "take" (tah-kay). The kanji for it is: 茸 - which literally means 'mushroom'.

But, being Japanese, the common word for mushroom is 'kinoko' (きのこ).

When you see the name of the mushroom, the prefix, if you will, it usually denotes the name of the tree on which that particular mushroom grows. Usually.

As for why the Japanese love to go out and pick their own mushrooms, well, aside from some tribalistic hunter-gather thing, it is said that because 'kinoko' literally translates as 'tree's child', so maybe the old parenting instinct kicks in.

Edible Japanese Mushrooms

Bunapi Shimeji
Bunapi Shimeji - White Beech - mushroom.
The Bunapi Shimeji (ブナピーシメジ) or Hypsizygus tessellatus is a mushroom that is a newcomer to the Japanese market, meaning that everyone knew it was edible, but sufficient quantities of it weren't around to warrant it having a 'thing'.

Perhaps better known as the Japanese White Beech mushroom, it originated in Japan, but is now grown and farmed in the good old U.S of A., Australia and Europe.

Also known as the White Clamshell Mushroom, the Bunapi Shimeji was selected from the Buna Shimeji (see below), and bred to have more white in it, and then registered by the Hokto Corporation, a Japanese company focusing on mushroom production.

Growing in clusters, this mushroom has a nutty, even butter-like flavor while possessing a firm, crunchy texture. If you feel lucky and want to taste it when raw, it is bitter, so why would you?

The Bunapi Shimeji mushrooms have a much longer shelf life of about two weeks, if refrigerated properly.

Since it doesn't turn soggy with age (after picking), you can tell that it is past its prime if it actually has mold growing on it....

For you health fiends, the Bunapi Shimeji contains beta-glucan polysaccharides, which are supposed to boost immune-modulation and help prevent tumors.

It can be used in soups, nabe and takikomi gohan as well as sauces... but this ain't no cooking show. I'll leave that to those who like to cook. I like to eat.

Buna Shimeji
Buna Shimeji - Brown Beech - mushroom - photo by Apple2000
Buna Shimeji (ブナシメジ) (still the Hypsizygus tessellatus) is very similar to the Bunapi Shimeji mushroom, except that it is called the Japanese Brown Beech mushroom. It is also known as: Beech Mushroom and Beech Brown Clamshell Mushroom.

It is a grayish-white mushroom with curves, and a brown cap that is supple and round.

Growing in clusters, this mushroom has a nutty, even butter-like flavor while possessing a firm, crunchy texture. Eaten raw, it tastes bitter.

The Buna Shimeji mushrooms have a much longer shelf life of about two weeks, if refrigerated properly.

Since it doesn't turn soggy with age (after picking), you can tell that it is past its prime if it actually has mold growing on it....

Like the Bunapi Shimeji, the Buna Shimeji contains beta-glucan polysaccharides, which are supposed to boost immune-modulation and help prevent tumors.

The Buna Shimeji is used in soups, nabe and takikomi gohan as well as sauces.

Enokitake mushroom
The Enokitake (榎, エノキ) or Flammulina populicola, also known as the Winter Mushroom in the U.S., is a fungi with long, thin, white stems in a tight bundle, with tiny white caps.

It apparently does NOT have much of a flavor, so its claim to culinary fame is that it has a crunchy texture, and one that is maintained even after cooking.

Enokitake is perfect for miso soup and hot pot meals.

Enokitake when it is old, goes yellowish in color, and becomes wet-looking. So, for eating purposes find Enokitake that are white, firm and dry. That also mans no humidity (water vapor) in the packaging.

Eringi mushroom - photo by Lemon-s
The Eringi (エリンギ) or King Trumpet Mushroom (Pleurotus eryngii) is basically a large Oyster mushroom, that has been described as the size of a toilet paper inner core with a thick and meaty white stem and a small tan cap that looks like it has been smashed flat the way a stake is smashed by a sledgehammer.

Other names for it include: French Horn Mushroom, King Oyster Mushroom, King Brown Mushroom, Boletus of the Steppes, Trumpet Royale Mushroom—which, if you think about is far too many monikers.

It grows natively in parts of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and NOT in Japan... so why is it here? Well, the Japanese and Americans do grow it commercially.

So you are only likely to find this at restaurants or grocery stores - not in the areas near the Japanese mountains.

Depending on whom you ask, it either lacks a lot of flavor or it has a lot of flavor.

Still, what chefs like about this one, is that it has a very chewy and meat-like texture and has the ability to absorb other flavors.

The Eringi is no longer fresh when it has speckles of brown spots, and looks wet, and grows a fungus on itself called hyphae. As well, if the mushroom's cap is beginning to flare up, it's getting old.

The Eringi contains high amounts of ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant amino acid, and supposedly may help reduce the risk of chronic disease by providing cellular protection against free radical damage in the liver and kidneys - at least that what a few happy mice have found out.

Lucky rats have also had their cholesterol levels lowered thanks to the lovastatin in the Eringi.

For us humans who need more antioxidant selenium in our diet, this mushroom has the ability to extract and concentrate high levels of selenium from its environment.

Hiratake - Oyster mushroom - photograph by Aaron Sherman
Hiratake is the Japanese name for Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), though its name in Japanese translates to "Flat mushroom".

There are many cultivated varieties of Hiratake, some of which look quite differently from each other: Oyster Shelf; Tree Oyster; Straw Mushroom; and Tamogitake, which I assume is Japanese, and is a ply on the flat shape relative to a fried egg.

All hiratake varieties have a broad, fan or oyster-shaped cap spanning five to 25-centimeters. Colors in the wild are white to gray or tan to dark-brown.

The flesh on the hiratake mushrooms white, firm, and varies in thickness due to stipe arrangement. The gills of the mushroom are white to cream, and descend on the stalk if present. If so, the stipe is off-center with a lateral attachment to wood.

The whole hiratake mushroom variety has a toxic lookalike in Japan and Australia, the Omphalotus nidiformis known as the Ghost Fungus which only makes you vomit anywhere between 30 minutes to 120 minutes after eating, and will last for several hours... but you won't die, and you won't poop your pants. But... I'll have more on this and other nasty mushroom types on another list - yes, a list!

Maitake mushroom - Photograph by Gargoyle888
The Maitake Mushroom (舞茸) or Grifola frondosa is also known as the Dancing Mushroom, Hen of the Woods, Ram's Head and Sheep's Head and is a cluster fug of yummyness. Dancing Mushroom? Sure... that's what the Japanese word Maitake means in English.

The Maitake mushroom grows in clusters at the base of trees - usually oaks - and is a native mushroom species in northeastern Japan and North America, though in Japan, it is usually found under the matsu (pine) trees, which too me suggest it likes acidy soil..

In Japan, Maitake is prized for its unique, earthy aroma and pleasing, moist but crunchy texture, yet tender with lots fragrance and flavor.

When choosing Maitake, pay attention to the moisture level. If the mushroom looks soggy, it's not all that fresh -- look for one that appears dry (but not dried out, you see), especially on the top brown part. Even when refrigerated, Maitake doesn't last very long. Try to eat it within a few days.

Maitake is especially high in antioxidants such as ascorbic acid, tocopherols, phenolic compounds, carotenoids, and L-ergothioneine. It contains complex polysaccharides, which act as immunomodulators and possess anti-tumor activity. Studies also point that the Maitake could be preventative and or part of a treatment for cancer and possibly HIV.

Natsutake Mushrooms - photo found:
The Matsutake (松茸) mushroom or Tricholoma matsutake is also known as the Pine Mushroom, because that's what 'matsutake' means in English.

It is a highly sought-after fungi that is prized by the Japanese and Chinese for its distinct spicy-aromatic odor.

Really... it's the smell... even though it is a tasty mushroom. Some people call the smell fruity, other spicy with a hint of cinnamon, a flavor I enjoy on my lips, and others still, say it smells, well, stinky. Basically, the best way to describe its smell is to say it smells like a Matsutake Mushroom.

Matsutake Mushrooms grow under trees, found under fallen leaves and duff on the forest floor and are known to grow in China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Canada, Finland, the United States, Sweden and a few others.

In Japan it is most commonly associated with Japanese Red Pine tree.

Despite the fact that these mushrooms have been a part of the Japanese diet for about 1,000 years, no one has figured out how to grow them commercially. That and the fact that some new insect has been introduced to Japan that kills the red pine, destroying possible growing areas.

It's one of the reasons why they can sell for as much as $1,000 a pound in Japan for some top quality Matsutake.

The Matsutake is one of those many things that the Japanese relate to as a symbol of who they are. It's a symbol of autumn, because that's when it seems to pop up, and is a symbol of seasonal change.

The mushroom is best when it is about 15.24-centimeters (six-inches) long, but apparently what really counts is to make sure the cap has not opened up yet.

Japanese folk say it should look like a penis, not an umbrella, and I think we can all agree on that, especially if it's six-inches long.

The value of the Matsutake decreases dramatically if the cap opens and the gills are visible.

Of course, WHERE it is grown is important, too, as someone has determined that the best Matsutake Mushrooms can only be found at the bottom of red pines in the Tamba region outside of Kyoto. Probably determined by someone from that area.

Now because there's only about 1,000 tons of Matsutake harvested a year - which sounds like a lot - and because lots of big company executives like to suck up to the bosses by giving away expensive mushroom baskets of the damn things - the Matsutake has to be shipped in from other countries, like the Koreas, China and even the U.S. Naturally, even though there is no discernible difference in the mushroom, the fact that it isn't Japanese drives the price down to about 1/10th the Japanese ones.

Matsutake are enjoyed in various ways such as grilled or cooked with rice, put in soup, steamed, fried in tempura and more, but for the price of the things, someone else better cook'em for me.

Nameko mushrooms
The Nameko mushroom (ナメコ) or Pholiota nameko, can be one disgusting mushroom when cooked.

Fresh, however, it is a small, amber-brown mushroom with a slightly gelatinous coating.

It is slightly nutty in flavor and is used in stir fry and, God help us, in miso soup.

When cooked in a liquid (such as the soup) the Nameko mushroom develops a mucous slime on the surface, which is what Nameko means - "little slimy bit". I know I've dropped the damn things many a time whilst using my chopsticks. They do taste really good, however.

This being Japan, it's this slimy grossness that is prized as much as the actual taste.

Reishi mushroom
The Reishi (霊) mushroom is a purple-brown in color, featuring a long stalk and shiny red kidney-shaped cap that looks like a fan.  It does not have gills on the underside, and I am thinking, that if I saw this mushroom there is no way in Hell I would ever consider eating it. Red is usually a warning color in the wild.

Seriously... can you imagine the first time someone tried to eat this? "Hey Groggg - bet two rocks you can't eat that?" "Do I have to live to win bet?" "No."

The mushroom is of the genus Ganoderma, but has several species, such as the Ganoderma lucidum, Ganoderma tsugae and Ganoderma sichuanense.

Native to Japan, China and North America, comes in six different colors - usually red - and grows on plum and oak trees, though I have also heard that it grows on maples.

Other Japanese names include:
  • Mannentake (万年茸) - the 10,000-year mushroom; 
  • Kadodetake (門出茸) - the Departure mushroom; 
  • Hijiridake (聖茸) - the Sage mushroom;
  • Magoshakushi (孫杓子) - the Grandchild Ladle,
What does it taste like? It's a strong flavor... bitter even. Basically, you don't want to eat it as part of a meal.

As such, its claim to fame is based on Chinese medicines, specifically for enhancing the immune system, and working on hypertension, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease, asthma and bronchial diseases.

Shiitake mushrooms
The Shiitake Mushroom (椎茸) or Lentinula edodes is well known, and is commonly used in any style of East Asian cooking as it is native to Japan, China and Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, and is the second-most cultivated mushroom in the world.

Also known as the Sawtooth Oak Mushroom, Black Forest mushroom, Black Mushroom, Golden Mushroom and Oakwood Mushroom, it sounds like it has a couple of color varieties.

The Japanese name - Shii - is related to the Japanese name of the evergreen tree Castanopsis cuspidata that, when it dies, provides the growing area for the mushroom.

There are a few high grade varieties of the Shiitake mushroom, such as the the Donko (Winter mushroom) with closed caps, the huāgū in Chinese (Flower mushroom) - and there are less expensive Japanese varieties called Koshin (Spring season variety) with open caps.

The Shiitake has a medium-sized, umbrella-shaped cap that is tan to brown in color, with the caps edges rolling inwards. Both the underside of the cap and the stem are white.

Eaten both fresh and dried, the Shiitake mushrooms will enhance the flavor of most foods, and is a mushroom I can eat everyday because it's just that good.

As for freshness, the word is that you should look for Shiitake mushrooms with a thick cap that curves slightly inward around the edge. If your Shiitake has a cap that flares outward or upward it could be one that was harvested too late or been too long on the shelf.

To the touch, fresh Shiitake should feel moist but not wet or slimy. The gills should be white or very pale beige and uniform in pattern.

Is it healthy? Sure - mushrooms are. The Shiitake contain lentinan which might have some anticancer effect... but only when the mushrooms start going for $100 a 'shroom will it be because it has been proven effective.


If anyone knows of other Japanese mushrooms that are safe and edible, please pass the information along.

I'll be looking at mushrooms that make you ill and mushrooms that kill and even some mushrooms that are fun...

Yes...  I have mushrooms on the brain.. because once you start asking questions, the more you learn.

Andrew Joseph, celebrated 13 years of wedded bliss on the 28th.

1 comment:

  1. Nice and useful information, thank you.

    You could add chichitake (Lactarius Volemus) to the list.