Every year between September and January, an elusive mushroom comes into Japan’s culinary spotlight. Matsutake, or pine mushrooms, are famous in Japan for their smell-- distinctly spicy, and slightly sweet, with pine-like earthiness-- and are infamous for their price-- sometimes up to $1000 per kilogram. Despite their rarity and price, matsutake are incredibly popular and considered one of Japan’s most quintessentially “fall” foods.
A big part of what makes the steep price of matsutake comes from the difficulty of obtaining them. Matsutake mushrooms are a mycorrhizal species, meaning that they grow as part of a symbiotic relationship between the mushroom and the roots of the trees that make their habitats. Matsutake are known for having a very strong preference for growing on the roots of pine trees, but occasionally grow with hardwoods such as oaks. The exact nature of their symbiotic relationship with the trees they grow on is unknown, making them impossible to artificially cultivate. This means that all matsutake mushrooms sold on the market have been gathered wild from forests, as opposed to most mushrooms which are grown on farms.
Unfortunately, the introduction of the pine-killing nematode has contributed intensely to the destruction of the very specific habitat that matsutake mushrooms inhabit. Nowadays, less than 1000 tons of matsutake are harvested in Japan each year, which, coupled with the increased demand has only worked to increase the price. Today, matsutake are often imported to Japan from Korea and China to keep up with the demand. As a result of the effect their transport has on freshness, imported matsutake are often much cheaper-- sometimes available for less than $20 for two. A species of matsutake mushroom is also native to the pine forests of Pacific Northwest in the United States. As such, matsutake available in America are generally harvested from there.
When cooking matsutake, it is important to be aware of their strong aroma, and the effect that has on their flavor. They will easily overpower the taste of other mushrooms, and generally don’t taste good when paired with cream or butter. Their flavor is also strong enough that when it comes to including them in recipes, less is more. They are quite tasty when sauteed simply with soy sauce, mirin, sake and dashi and served hot over a bowl of fresh rice. Their flavor is somewhat unusual and often described as an acquired taste, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t sure what to think of them on the first try.
Matsutake’s unique flavor combined with their rarity and difficulty to obtain has given them a near-mythical status in Japan, much in the same way that truffles have gained a similar status to mushroom hunters in America. A symbol of the taste of fall, matsutake are a must-try for mushroom fans the world over.