Japan’s climate makes it a fungi-lovers’s dream, with over 4000 species of kinoko mushroom and fungus, as many as there are in all of Europe. Many kinoko are edible, and they are all generally used in the same way, in misoshiru miso soup, as tempura, mixed with rice as kinokogohan, or in nabemono hotpots. They have incredible health-giving properties. For an in-depth look at that subject, stay tuned to FGL.
In pure terms of versatility, usefulness, and cost-performance, the king of Japanese mushrooms is undoubtedly Lentinus edodes, the humble shiitake. Strong tasting, and easily cultivated, they are used in a wide range of washoku dishes, as primary ingredients, accompaniments and garnishes. They are also extremely useful in making vegetarian and vegan-friendly dashi broth.
Oita, Shizuoka and Miyazaki Prefectures are especially renowned as sources for shiitake, including the most sought after, and most expensive donko shiitake that only grow in specially shaded conditions out in the forest, and must be tended with extreme care, hence their price. They are harvested in the spring and autumn.
They autumn fungus maitake hen-of-the-woods, literally, ‘dancing mushroom’, from the waving, arm-like shape of their branches, are earthy, slightly crunchy, and one of Japan’s great kinoko tastes. Maitake go well with shoyu or miso based soups and, unlike shiitake, lend themselves perfectly to Western-style and fusion dishes as well as junwafu ‘pure Japanese’ fare. A white version known as shiro maitake is often used for visual effect against a bark lacquer bowl or plate.
Maitake are mostly grown in Hokkaido and Tohoku, and my back garden, as it happens. However, if you can, try to get hold of the wild variety, most often taken kinokogari ‘on the hunt’ in rural, mountainous prefectures such as Nagano and Gunma. There’s no comparison with the farmed variety. Wild maitake, like all wild kinoko, have that powerful woodsy flavor of, say, cèpes or even porcini. They make brilliant tempura.
Shimeji are small, cultivated white-stemmed mushrooms most commonly served in miso soup, but flexible enough to use in pretty much anything. Their larger cousins hon-shimeji, are hunted in the wild, and are considered a delicacy. Many years ago I had the pleasure of discovering a treasure trove of hon-shimeji (locals call them pon-shimeji) in a forest in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. I cooked half, and sold the rest at a handsome profit. Buna-shimeji are a smaller yellowish variety.
Nameko are vividly yellowy-orange, and have a gelatinous quality that fans adore. They especially suit thick, strong inaka-miso ‘rural miso’ and are often used atop sansai soba buckwheat noodles. Kabu-nameko are much larger and slightly less sticky. Enoki-dake have long, thin, white fungal stems topped with a creamy-white cap. They’re great lightly balanced in salads, sautéed in butter, or in miso soup. They are best from November to March. The Chinese Tea Tree Mushroom is a relative newcomer to Japan, where it is known as yanagi matsutake (pictyred below in my kitchen). It's a wonderfully fragrant, slightly crunchy, and makes good dashi.