China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Mushroom Season: Matsutakes

October 3rd, 2012

A few weeks ago Josh came through the door with a bag of unfamiliar mushrooms in his hand. “They told me these were matsutakes,” he said. “And they were only twenty-five kuai per jin.” “That can’t be right,” I responded. “They’re something else. You misunderstood what they were saying.” At 25 kuai per jin, that meant that whatever Josh had bought, he’d got all six ounces—three very large mushrooms—for 50 kuai, or about $8 US. And matsutakes, the king of mushrooms, are so treasured in places like Tokyo that they’ve been known to sell for over $1,000 per pound. There was no way, I thought, that we’d get the same thing this cheap.

But Josh was adamant that he hadn’t misheard, and after a bit of research, I had to admit that he was right. The specimens on my kitchen counter were, in fact, matsutakes. They appeared to be lower quality than those that command obscene prices overseas—they had a much lighter aroma than those I’d read about, were harvested in the summer instead of during the high-season that runs from September through November, and came from China rather than the pristine mountains of Japan—but they were, nonetheless, the same mushroom.

Faced with the task of cooking such a rare food, I had a moment of panic. The vendors had told Josh to stir-fry them with green chiles, which is what every vendor had told us to do with every mushroom we’d bought all summer, but I had to believe there was a better way to experience the flavor of the mushrooms. So I decided to do a few very simple things with them and see if I could keep their flavor as pure as possible.

The first night, I started by using them as a topping for noodles. I made a rich chicken broth (using the Chinese method of cooking the bird forever over the lowest possible flame to extract all the flavor), then made a simple noodle soup with soba noodles and just a bit of soy sauce and Chinese cooking wine. At the end, I sautéed slices of the mushrooms in a bit of oil and used them as a topping for the noodles. The result was very mild. The mushrooms had the species’ characteristic woodsy, piney aroma and flavor, which paired well with the buckwheat of the noodles, but the effect was muted, more of an accent than a primary flavor.

The next day, I decided to keep it even simpler. After doing a little bit of online research, I decided to try to make a version of matsutake gohan, the flavorful infused rice that the Japanese make. Since I didn’t have any dashi makings, I used the chicken broth again, and I made a very simple mixture of broth, rice, mushrooms, and scallions and set it to simmer on the stove. With the remaining mushrooms, I did something even simpler: I tossed them with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and put them in the oven to roast. The result was lovely. For dinner we had a mini matsutake feast, just bowls of fragrant, piney rice topped with rich pieces of the roasted mushrooms. The two preparations combined wonderfully to give us a real sense of the matsutake’s famous flavor, and by the end of the meal we could almost imagine why people would pay so much to eat these lovely fungi.

Photo: Josh Wand