Friday, September 09, 2011

For Love of Mushrooms

I have always loved Mushrooms and have enjoyed any form in which they have landed up on my plate. Unfortunately, most of the times the mushrooms are the button mushrooms which have been artificially cultivated. This eliminates the fear of eating a toxic variety of naturally grown mushroom. However the farm grown mushrooms do not have the exotic taste of the naturally grown mushrooms.I had eaten a few of the exotic varieties of mushrooms during my stay in South Korea. But the variety of mushrooms in Japan is simply overwhelming. 

Mushrooms are called "Kinoko" in Japanese and are an integral part of Japanese cuisine. Mushrooms are served in both raw and cooked forms and are served in soups, salads, in rice dishes, in sushi, grilled or sauteed, with noodles, in nabe dishes, in stews or as tempuras. 

Shiitake mushrooms remain one of Japan's more popular varieties and has found a place for itself in South East Asian cuisine. It has the tendency to absorb flavours and its chewy texture makes it an ideal for soups, stews and warm salads. The dried Shiitake mushrooms are preferred and tend to be priced higher than the fresher variety. In the cold winter months, dried Shiitake is abundantly used, making up for the scarcity of certain types of vegetables. 

Enoki mushrooms are actually a cluster of mushrooms. Initially I had mistaken it for a small bunch of pearly white flowers! It owes its name to the Enoki tree where it grows. These days it is also cultivated in bottles or plastic bags. The naturally grown variety has a brownish tinge. Its clear and fruity taste make it a favourite in many Japanese dishes and it is usually served as a topping over soup or salads. It is also rolled up in some varieties of Sushi or sometimes stir fried and tossed in  "Yaki-soba".      

Shimeji mushrooms are usually not eaten raw owing to its bitter taste. As such this is one variety which is served only in cooked form - mostly in soups and sometimes roasted. Strange as it may sound, the bitterness disappears with the cooking. It has a crunchy, nutty texture and is usually served in a nabe (hotpot) dish or is combined with seafood. It is reported to be a difficult variety to cultivate and some cultivation methods are said to have been patented! 

Maitake mushrooms are the fourth type of mushrooms which enjoy a special place in Japanese cuisine. They are regarded as the "king of mushrooms". These mushrooms grow in clusters, usually below Oak trees and are abundant in North eastern Japan. Maitake mushrooms are commonly used in cooking "nabe" (hot pot) dishes. It is also said to have medicinal properties and is used in traditional Oriental medicine. In case of Maitake, when shopping the golden rule to remember is - The smaller the mushroom, the easier to digest and the bigger the mushroom, the harder to chew. So pick your Maitake carefully. 

Tamogitake mushrooms are another variety of mushrooms which have medicinal properties. This golden oyster mushroom is generally grown on sawdust or straw and are said to be one of the easier to cultivate varieties. The flesh is thin and white and the taste is mild, with no odour. This makes this mushroom a easy to blend ingredient in many Japanese dishes.

Hiratake ,sometimes called Eringii, also found in Middle East and Europe, are common in Japanese cuisine. They are also called King Trumpet mushroom owing to its shape.These can be eaten raw or in cooked form. The taste changes when the mushroom is cooked. It is juicy and does not loose its colour or shape easily even after cooking. These are a personal favorite.

Matsutake mushrooms grow in abundance in North eastern Japan. These grow in the wild under trees, especially pine. Since they are mostly concealed under heaps of fallen leaves, they are hard to find and as such they are usually more expensive. It has a distinct pungent odor, making it a preferred variety in many Japanese dishes. These days, it is imported from China, Korea and North America, thereby making it costlier. 

No Japanese meal seems to be complete without the humble fungii finding its place on the table. When in Japan, enjoy your fungii. 

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