Matsutake is a coveted type of mushroom. They grow from September to January and are also known as pine mushrooms. The taste of a matsutake mushroom is earthy, sweet, and notably spicy. Matsutake mushrooms also have a very strong scent, and are popular for their smell as well as their taste. They are infamously expensive because of their rarity.
One single well-grown matsutake mushroom can cost as much as $80 USD, and even one that isn’t perfectly shaped will still cost $40 per stem on average. Despite their rarity and the tedious process that goes into harvesting them, matsutake are a very popular Japanese fall food.
What sets matsutake apart from other mushrooms is that to get them, they must be harvested in the wild, unlike other mushrooms that can be grown in farms. They grow on the roots of trees, usually pine trees but sometimes oak. It is unknown why they grow like this, so it’s entirely impossible to grow matsutake artificially.
A pine-killing nematode (type of roundworm) has played a huge part in destroying the environment needed for matsutake to grow. These days, only 1,000 tons of matsutake are harvested each year in Japan. This factor combined with the incredible demand for this distinct mushroom has only caused prices to continue to rise.
To keep up with the demand, matsutake is now imported from Japan to China and Korea. The process of shipping them has a major effect on their freshness, so imported matsutake is much cheaper than fresh matsutake. When it’s been imported, one can buy matsutake for about half of its original price.
There is one species of matsutake that is native to the United States. Forests in the Pacific Northwest grow matsutake, so when matsutake is sold in America it’s usually harvested from there, instead of being imported.
Something comparable that Americans will likely be more familiar with is truffles. Like matsutake, truffles are rare and difficult to grow. They are expensive and have a very strong taste, and an even stronger scent. They’re also grown in the roots of trees. The main difference between truffles and matsutake is that truffles are more commonly native to America. Essentially, matsutake is to Japan as truffles are to America.
While matsutake is known for being incredibly rare and expensive, they are also known for their pungent flavor. Because their taste is so strong, they don’t usually taste good with common cooking additions like butter or cream. They intensely overpower other mushrooms, and when it comes to cooking with matsutake, less is always more.
The flavor of matsutake is oftentimes called an acquired taste, and many people don’t know what to think of it upon the first try. Although it doesn’t pair well with dairy-based toppings, matsutake is known to be delicious when sauteed with soy sauce, and also is a nice addition to a warm bowl of rice.
The taste is described as distinctively spicy, with hints of cinnamon and cypress. Its texture is firm and meaty.
Because of their status, matsutake mushrooms are commonly given as seasonal gifts, often from companies to clients. To be eaten, matsutake is usually cut into thin slices and then pulled apart like string cheese. Doing this can help bring the flavor out even more.
In dishes, matsutake are usually served with more bland tasting things, such as rice. They can also be cooked alongside vegetables like celery, carrots, and onions. Matsutake are very overpowering which is why they’re combined with less flavorful ingredients. They are also often cooked by themselves and eaten as an appetizer.
The status of matsutake in Japan is comparable to truffles for mushroom hunters in America. It is a staple food during the fall seasons and many consider it a must-have. Matsutake mushrooms are often given as gifts because of their rarity and price.
Because they’re grown in the roots of trees for reasons that aren’t completely known, matsutake can not be artificially replicated. They have a very distinct taste and an even more pungent aroma. They are in high demand when their harvesting season comes around, and those who eat them deem them to be well worth the price.