By | March 3, 2011

When the earthquake struck last week, it felt slightly disrespectful to write enthusiastically about anything else, let alone the little, joyful things in life, like food. In the face of such tragedy, they seemed so trivial. For a while I wondered: when is it OK to be happy again? To laugh? How soon is too soon to talk about life as if things are normal? The ‘avoiders guilt’ I described in my last post seemed only to magnify the feeling – as if not having been there, it wasn’t my place to decide when normal discourse is allowed to resume.

For several days these questions were moot as the scale of the disaster became obvious and personal. For me, this first took form as a growing realization that I’d never be able to return to the Christchurch in my memories, that it would always be a place scarred and changed, and though new memories and stability would undoubtedly form, my relationship with home would be indelibly punctuated by this single, critical event that I saw only through the lens of the internet. A day or two after the quake, I was struck again while looking through photos of the missing, when I spotted an old friend from high school. I hadn’t seen him in years, and we were never terribly close, but we shared several good times together: ‘illegally’ gaming on the school computers after hours on weekends, his awful jokes on bulletin boards in the late 90s, and his assistance with procuring me alcohol for one of the first parties I ever went to. What hit me wasn’t intense grief by any means; as I said, we weren’t particularly close. Instead, my reaction took the form of a general malaise, sadness and regrets, and a feeling of loss and impermanence. No matter how stable things in life ever seem, the one thing that can be taken for granted is that they will change, and not always for the better. Mortality and death are topics of deep pondering for me, and whenever they strike anywhere close to me, I tend to retreat into myself to deal with them, as I’m not a public griever. In the context of mortality, life seems so abstract and absurd; no wonder the world abounds with so many elaborate rationalizations of it.

Anyway, this post wasn’t going to be about death and regret. It was going to be about a particular category of small, happy things in life: Mushrooms.

Of all the world’s cuisines that I’ve encountered, Japanese cuisine seems the most removed from the others, both in its diverse ingredients, its simplicity and elegance, and its emphasis on texture and subtlety of flavour. It fascinates me in a way quite unlike any other cuisine; probably, I think, because much of it seems so alien.

In the US and NZ, supermarkets typically offer three slightly different versions of the same type of mushroom (Agaricus bisporus, being the white button, crimini, or portobello mushroom depending on color and size), supplemented with oyster mushrooms if you’re extra lucky. In Japan, all of the supermarkets I’ve visited so far offer at least five species of mushroom. Better still, other than shiitake, none of them are familiar, offering not just an an opportunity trying new food, but an opportunity for Food Science!

My method was simple; I bought six different types of mushrooms, sautéed them in canola oil (normally I’d use butter, but I didn’t want its flavour to obscure that of the mushrooms), then ate them side by side, trying to compare them one to one, while making notes. Here’s my impressions:

  • Shiitake: Of all of the mushrooms I tried, shiitake was the one I’ve had most experience with. In the west, though, it’s normally sold freeze-dried. I’ve read that fresh shiitake have a slightly less intense flavour than dried as the drying process breaks down some of their proteins into tasty amino acid, but fresh ones have a much more pleasant texture. Stalks are a bit of a problem; they have plenty of flavour but are also rather chewy, meaning you either have to discard the stalks or cook them longer. Shiitake are rich, savory, and flavourful, with vaguely smokey tones – the sort of food that I tend to want to hold in my mouth over-long so I can keep enjoying it. Definitely an improvement on the pre-packaged stuff I can get in the west. One thing, though – unless you’re chopping them finely for use in a soup, sauce, or stock, remove the stalks unless you want them to be extra chewy.
  • Hiratake: Research after my little experiment revealed that these are basically the same oyster mushrooms that can be found in any good food store in NZ or the US. They had a particularly earthy smell to them, and preserved that flavour long into the cooking process. Texture was somewhat more chewy than button mushrooms, but not so much as shiitake. I found them to be savory, chewy, and pleasant, with a vague hint of sesame. It’s hard to suggest what mushroom you should use for what purpose (you’re better off trying them yourself), but to me these seemed like they’d be particularly tasty as a base for soups and sauces
  • Nameko / Nametake: These were a novelty. They’re small, with a classic shape, but exude a gelatinous soup which, aside from their lovely golden colour, makes them look thoroughly unappetizing. Fresh, they have almost no smell, but when sautéed, give off a lovely smell of caramel. Surprisingly, the gelatinous coating doesn’t disappear at all after cooking, giving them a texture not slimy, but soft and wet. Even better, they have an interesting, butterscotch-y, nutty, baked potato flavour, with a slight amount of sweetness. Yum. Unsurprisingly, these are apparently one of Japan’s most widely cultivated mushrooms.
  • Enokitake: Enoki are long and thin, with very small caps, and come in clusters of perhaps a hundred or so mushrooms. Sautéing didn’t seem like the best treatment for these; they have a lot of surface to pick up oil, and ended up looking vaguely worm-like. Flavour-wise, they’re quite sweet and vegetative, with a flavour reminiscent of grassy fields on a sunny day. Individually, they offer little resistance to the teeth, but together, they’re almost crunchy. Apparently they’re commonly used in soups.
  • Bunapishimeji: Fresh, these had a slight, fresh odor that reminded me of yarrow (a smell very familiar from my childhood). Sautéed, they were quite wonderful, with a strong savory flavour reminiscent of browning bread. I’ve been using these since in stir fries, as not only do they have wonderful flavour, they are just they right size and shape to cook whole and have they soft yet structured texture that good stir-fries should.
  • Tamogitake: Last but by no means least, was tamogitake, a yellow-capped mushroom with a strong odor of nasty old fish. These were hard to find information on, but apparently have anti-cancer properties and are often eaten for medicinal purposes. Their smell was quite overwhelming – merely handling them was occasion to wash one’s hands – luckily, however, it dissipated when they were cooked, though they maintained a strong flavour similar to that of fried white fish. I’m guessing these would be great in a chowder or other seafood dish, but I’m unlikely to eat them on their own very often.

As with all matters of taste, your mileage may vary. I’d encourage you to try these yourself if you can find them. If you ever find yourself thinking of mushrooms as having a fairly boring taste, though, think again – fungus are hugely diverse and quite flexible ingredients.

I took some of photos of this – you can find these in the photo browser widget above or on my photos page.