A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

For The Delicate Aroma Of Japan’s Matsutake Mushrooms You Have To Pay Through The Nose

Growing up in the US, I only knew them as rubbery little brown slices that came out of a can. Coming to Japan opened my eyes to the exciting and varied world of mushrooms, or ki no ko (literally the children of trees) in Japanese. A walk around the produce section of your local supermarket in this season will reveal an exciting array of edible fungi, which when cooked are startlingly tasty (try stir frying maitake mushrooms in soy sauce and sake!).

According to a popular traditional Japanese expression, SHIMEJI mushrooms are the most delicious (though many now prefer maitake and shiitake). The same adage 香り松茸味しめじ (KAORI MATSUTAKE AJI SHIMEJI), however, claims that in terms of aroma the matsutake mushroom is king (the expression directly translated means “aroma matsutake, taste shimeji”).

The matsutake has become one of the three representative foods of the season (along with persimmons and sanma (a kind of fish), and valued as a delicacy and as a high end gift. Many Japanese like to have steamed matsutake rice, with its unique aroma, at least once every autumn.

Domestically harvested matsutake are becoming harder and harder to come by (at present these mushrooms cannot be cultivated, and have to be HUNTED and picked) and when you find them in stores you will most surely be discouraged from buying them due to their astronomical cost. You might want to take a picture of the price tags though. Last week in Tokyo I found a few of these phallic shaped fungi (this is probably another reason for their prestige in the orient) on sale for nearly 600 dollars (57,000 yen!)

Tsukubans interested in having a classic autumn culinary experience, can do so, with an inexpensive matsutake rice lunch set, at the ICHINOYA RESTAURANT. For the price of a usual lunch set (teishoku) you can have a MORE THAN FILLING meal which includes the famous delicacy (the matsutake they use are not domestically harvested). This special will only be available till the end of the month so you had better hurry.

If you do go, write me and tell me how YOU would describe the aroma. I have asked several Japanese (including professional chefs) what word they would use for the smell. The usual response was “HHMMM, well, uh, it’s the MATUTAKE AROMA!”

Ichinoya restaurant has been around for a long time and is a favorite place for older Ibarakians. They serve up most kinds of Japanese food in very generous portions. It is also very reasonably priced.

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