Japan, a country surrounded by nature, has been providing various gifts to the locals, and in consequence they have adopted a lifestyle coexistent with mother nature by cultivating and harvesting what the ocean, forest, and mountain have to offer. Despite the fact that Japan is considered one of the major industrialized states in the world, more than two-thirds of the whole surface area of the country account for forest. According to data from the World Bank, Japan ranks third in terms of total forest area among all the OECD members, just behind Finland and Sweden. This clearly indicates that Japan still has abundant access to forest-based resources.
While Japan is an insular nation noted for its seafood-consumption customs, the country is also deeply connected with the forest since ancient times. Indeed, it is also the mushrooms that have greatly supported the Japanese people in terms of diet. There are many Japanese dishes that contain edible mushrooms, sometimes these are eaten directly otherwise used as a dashi soup base. In addition, the worldwide trend for healthful and natural products has led to a greater attention and consumption of mushrooms due to their health benefits.
This article provides information on mushrooms and its usage in Japan. It's largely divided into the following parts:
- An introduction of mushrooms
- Brief history of mushrooms in Japan
- Dietary benefits of mushrooms
- Popular Japanese mushrooms
What exactly is a mushroom? Is it a fungus or a plant?
Although mushrooms are sometimes recognized as a vegetable in a broad sense they're actually a type of fungi with a plantlike form. Mushrooms have cells and resemble a plant but they are neither a plant nor animal.
In Japanese mushroom is called kinoko (pronounced: kee-noh-koh) and literally means "child of tree" because most mushrooms are found at the tree trunks, fallen trees, and other adjacent areas of the tree. In Japan, it's said that there're more than 4000 types of mushrooms while only 100 of those are found to be edible, 200 poisonous, and surprisingly the rest are still unclassified whether or not edible.
History of mushrooms as food in Japan
The custom of consuming mushrooms in Japan dates back to the Jomon period, one of the periods in the Japanese prehistory dated from around 13,000 BCE. A proof of this is the mushroom-like earthenware pieces found in an archaeological site in Akita Prefecture. This discovery indicates that mushrooms were consumed from ancient times in Japan; indeed, Jomon people obtained foods mainly by gathering, and most of these were extracted from mountains and forests where mushrooms grow naturally.
It was not until the Nara period (710~784 AD) when mushrooms were first mentioned in written documents. For instance, there is a description were Kuzubitos, a mountainous ethnic group in Nara who had relationship with the Emperor family, offered mushrooms to the then Emperor as a tribute. Likewise, in a collection of Japanese poetry published in the Heian period (794~1185), there are some poems which describe aristocrats enjoying a mushroom gathering in autumn. In Momoyama period (1573~1603), there is a description were samurais are gathering matsutake mushrooms for enjoyment while in the Edo period (1603~1868) mushrooms got more widely distributed and consumed. All of these justify why mushrooms have been playing a significant role in the Japanese diet.
However, it was not since the Showa period (1926~1989) when mushroom bed cultivation methods were introduced in Japan and all-season mass production got established. Until then, mushrooms or kinoko were regarded as a delicatessen only eaten in auspicious moments such as in New Year's Day.
Health benefits of mushrooms
Natural edible mushrooms are healthy, low calorie, and free of fat. Keep reading to know in detail the health benefits of mushrooms.
Edible fiber is oft-mentioned nutrition rich in mushrooms. Abundant intake of fiber helps to improve the condition of intestinal bacteria, restrain blood sugar level, and decrease blood cholesterol concentration. In addition, fiber expands its volume when it absorbs water and this stimulates excretion of body waste. Also, fiber creates a sense of fullness even if you eat in a small portion, so it's a convenient food for those who wish to keep themselves lean.
It's said that there are only a few foods that contain vitamin D and mushrooms is one of them. Vitamin D helps absorption of calcium, which eventually strengthens your bones and muscles. If you add maitake mushroom in your diet, you can make yourself healthy.
Biotin, a variety of vitamin B, is another nutrient that mushrooms have abundantly. Biotin supports better digestion and absorption of sugar, amino acid, and fat. Further, biotin is in some ways a medicine because it's expected to alleviate inflammation and allergic symptoms.
The above nutrient contents are often difficult to meet the recommended daily intake if you aren't much conscious of well-balanced diet. In this sense, by adding some amount of mushrooms in your meal, you can improve your overall health and beauty.
A list of popular Japanese mushrooms
While there are several dozens of kinokos regularly consumed in Japan, including the white mushroom introduced from the West, the following are the commonly mentioned kinokos that are well consumed among Japanese people and can be found in Japanese cuisine frequently:
Shiitake Mushroom (椎茸)
When you ask to someone "What is the typical Japanese mushroom?" many would say the shiitake. Its Kanji name is literally translated as "chinquapin mushroom" which derives from the fact that it grows on a kind of hardwood tree. In Japan, shiitake was originally cultivated in forest-grown approach but eventually mushroom bed method cultivation became the mainstream.
Shiitake mushrooms feature a large-sized dark brown cap and white stem, and are noted for a meaty texture often used as a replacement of meat. Although shiitake is a versatile kinoko that can be used in any Japanese dish, using it as a source of dashi (soup stock) is also a common way to enjoy it. Shiitake contain an umami nutrient called guanylic acid which gets stronger when heated. To fully enjoy the taste of shiitake, you can sauté or stir-fry it with other ingredients or if it is simmered you can add it into soups or sauces. When you have shiitake in your kitchen, you can easily recreate various Japanese dishes with its excellent dashi flavor.
Shimeji (占地 / 湿地)
Shimeji can be divided into two categories; one is called hon-shimeji, and another is buna-shimeji. Hon-shimeji refers to a wild shimeji mushroom which has more umami and iron than buna-shimeji and is famous for its extreme difficulty in cultivation while buna-shimeji is an artificially cultivated variation available at every supermarket in Japan, and has lighter taste with more vitamin C and biotin than hon-shimeji.
In Chinese character, shimeji literally means "occupy ground" or "wet ground" because it grows so massively that the ground eventually got fully stuffed with shimejis, and it also usually grows on the humid ground. It usually has a tiny, round, light-brown-colored cap with a white stem. Shimeji is a relatively easy to eat mushroom thanks to its mild taste and aroma. In addition, it has nice umami, and features an unique chewy texture, making this kinoko a nice companion with soup, pasta, tempura, hot pot, and more.
Maitake Mushroom (舞茸)
Maitake (Hen of the Woods), is another well-consumed mushroom in Japan. Maitake's kanji can be translated literally as "dancing mushroom" and this derives from a legend that its fluttering cap resembles to a dancing motion. It grows near the roots of the trees like oak, but almost all maitakes available at the supermarkets are cultivated. Maitake has a worth trying crunchy texture, so if you wish to enjoy its distinctive crispiness, it's highly recommended to eat it in tempura or takikomi gohan (boiled rice seasoned with soy sauce and mixed with meat or seafood and vegetables).
The white root end is tough while the multiple-layered brown caps are very soft that you can tear it apart without using a kitchen knife. Maitake contains more fiber called β-glucan and enzyme called protease compared with any other kinoko. β-glucan helps improving immunity, restrain cancer development, and prevent elevation of blood pressure. On the other hand, protease breaks down protein, making the meat softer. If you wish to have a soft steak, cook it with maitake as if you're cooking buta-no-shoga-yaki (Japanese ginger pork).
Enoki / Enokitake Mushroom (榎茸)
Enoki or enokitake, literally means hackberry mushroom, and normally grows on roots, fallen trees, tree stumps and deadwoods of the broad-leaf trees like hackberry and oak. In Japan, the forest-grown cultivation started in the Meiji period (1868~1912), eventually replaced by indoor mushroom bed cultivation from Showa period. Enokitake mushroom is available at any grocery stores regardless of seasons and at a reasonable price. The tips to find fresh cultivated enoki is to check the stem and cap: the tasty enoki is white in color and has a glossy cap and a non-slimy stem.
This needle-like kinoko is juicy and the texture is pleasantly chewy. However, you need to be careful that you may ruin these lovely features if you cook it excessively. Unlike shiitake or matsutake, this kinoko doesn't have rich taste or aroma, but this means it is highly compatible with any food and seasoning. Add enoki mushroom into your dishes so that you can easily take more fiber and vitamin B. A well-known Japanese dish using enoki is called "nametake": just add cooked enoki into a mixture of mirin (sweet cooking sake), soy sauce, and sugar. This goes very well with a beer.
Nameko / Nametake (滑子)
Nameko or Nametake, literally means "slimy mushroom", and is called butterscotch mushroom in English. Natural nameko mushroom grows on dead / fallen Japanese beech, oak, and sakura (cherry blossom). It has an orange or light brown cap with a soft and thin white or light yellow stem.
Nameko is famous for its slippery, slimy texture. This unique slime agent is actually a water-soluble dietary fiber called mucin, which enhances efficient protein absorption, protects a wall of stomach, and prevents osteoporosis. Nameko is a natural thickener that it goes perfectly well with sautéed dishes. Grilling or boiling are another enjoyable choice. In Japan, nameko is frequently used as a miso soup ingredient. You can also make a casual Japanese-style side dish by adding grated radish and ponzu (soy sauce seasoned with fruit juice) into a blanch nameko.
Eringi (Japanese King Oyster mushroom)
Interestingly, eringi, or King Oyster mushroom, has no kanji expression because this mushroom was introduced from Mediterranean Europe. Eringi got cultivated in Japan from 1990s onward, and became one of the popular mushrooms in Japan used in various Japanese dishes. Eringi mushroom is large in size, uniquely crunchy in texture, and easy to eat because its aroma and taste isn't too strong. It's said that the texture varies depending on how you cut it. Should you have an interest, try and compare the texture between sliced eringi and that cut lengthways into two.
Eringi's has a thick and fleshy stem and a small cap. This kinoko is popular among vegans because its rich source of protein and meaty texture, is an excellent replacement for meats. Another unique feature is that its aroma and umami gets stronger when it's heated, thus the best way to enjoy eringi is simply sautéed with butter or olive oil. If you wish to try eringi cooked in the Japanese way, add soy sauce and sprinkle some flaked nori seaweed. Another recommendation is butaniku-maki (stuffed pork roll); wrap a filling of eringi, mashed umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), and shiso (Japanese basil) with a sliced pork and cook it.
Matsutake Mushroom (松茸)
Matsutake, whose kanji is literally expressed as "pine mushroom", is considered as an exclusive mushroom in Japan. Its habitat is under the threat of extinction and so far no cultivation methods have established, resulting in a very expensive price. Yet, its aroma and taste is so extraordinary that any mushroom fan should experience. Unlike other Japanese mushrooms, matsutake has different forms; some have large and round caps while others have curved stems like bananas.
Japanese people enjoy matsutake's distinctive umami and aroma by grilling it on charcoal fire, steaming it in an earthenware teapot, eating it as osuimono (a clear soup lightly seasoned with soy sauce or salt), or mixed with takikomi gohan. The tip is to make the seasoning simple, focusing and appreciating its aroma and texture.