Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed mushrooms

In this month’s Japan Times food column, I write about the varieties of mushrooms available in Japan. It has a recipe for mushroom rice in there too - one of my favorite recipes for fall, for which I have a few variations (a couple of them are on this site, i.e. here and here.

One of the things I talk about in the article is the mysterious mushroom-shaped clay objects that have been found from prehistoric excavation sites in northern Japan. Here’s a picture of some of these mushroom-shaped clay objects, pilfered from the Chiba Prefectural Museum website. Aren’t they amazingly lifelike?

jomonkinoko1.jpg

As I wrote in the article, they are generally thought to be made as visual aids to mushroom hunting - very lifelike models of edible mushrooms that people carried around in the forests, just like modern day mushroom hunters carry photographic field guides with them. It’s really fun to imagine people thousands of years ago packing up a selection of these clay mushrooms, perhaps with a basket and a little knife or something too, as they went foraging. I wonder how people in other regions tackled the problem of sticking to safe mushrooms in the days before illustrated manuals?

Whenever I go back to Japan, it really strikes me that while you can get basically any kind of fruit or vegetable, the ones that are inexpensive, and therefore most commonly used, differ a lot from the same in Europe (at least the parts I’m familiar with) or the U.S. Mushrooms are no exception. In Japan, shiitake, enoki, shimeji and maitake mushooms are quite inexpensive, while western button mushrooms are way more pricey. When I do a European style mushroom pasta with butter and garlic and wine and so on in Japan, I often use shimeji or maitake (shiitake have a too-specific aroma to me) instead of button mushrooms. (Matsutake of course are in another strosphere.)

The selection of mushrooms here in southern France is very different of course. We can, in season, get the most gorgeous chantarelles or pleurotus (oyster mushrooms) and so on at pretty fair prices. And of course there are truffles - very expensive still, but a lot cheaper than elsewhere. Here’s a mound of wild mushrooms being sold at a local market. A bear to clean, since they have bits of leaves and plenty of dirty in them, but so worth it.

mushroom-mound.jpg

Recipe: Oven-steamed mushrooms in foil (kinoko no hoiru yaki)

kinoko-foilyaki.jpg

This super-easy recipe can be made with a mixture of any kind of mushrooms you can get, even plain old button mushrooms, though the more wild-type mushrooms you can use the better. Baking times vary according to how big your mushrooms are, but range from around 20-30 minutes. In Japan I would use a mixture of fresh shiitake, shimeji and enoki, and here in France I’d use boletus, chantarelles and chestnut mushrooms if I can.

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 360°F.

For each serving, use a good big handful of cleaned mushrooms. If the mushrooms are very large or thick (e.g. if you’re using trumpet mushrooms or eringi*), slice them lengthwise or shred them. Small or thin mushrooms can be used whole.

Spread the mushrooms out on a piece of foil or ovenproof parchment paper. Sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon of sake and 1 to 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. (If you can’t use sake, leave it out, though you will miss out a bit on taste.) You can also add a little grated ginger if you like.

Fold the foil over and seal the edges well. Put the foil packets in the oven on a baking sheet an bake for around 20 to 30 minute, depending on the size of your mushrooms.

Open the foil carefully since it will be very hot! Serve with some kaposu or sudachi wedges, if you’re in Japan (or can get a hold of these Japanese citrus fruits) or lemon or lime wedges. To make it richer, add a pat of butter to the still-hot mushrooms. Eat with plain rice, mixed into buttered pasta.

[*I am not a big fan of eringi or trumpet mushrooms. They have even less flavor to me than button mushrooms. They are a very recent introduction to Japan by the way, having only been available there since the ’90s, and they are inexplicably popular…perhaps because they look so impressive.]

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Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

I absolutely LOVE shimeji. I live in Paris and they are pretty hard to come by here, but I come from Brazil, and they are very popular there (maybe because there is a big Japanese presence in some cities, such as Sao Paulo). I had shimeji cooked this exact same way, with butter. It was probably one of the best things I ate in Sao Paulo, and that's something :D I'll try the recipe with girolles and chanterelles. Thanks for the recipe !

Milady | 23 September, 2011 - 13:10

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

I will be trying this as soon as I get home; I have a bunch of shimeji right now in my fridge. Mushrooms are my absolute favorite food ever! My father gave me the nickname of "mushroom-head" because I eat mushrooms so much! If I could I afford it, I'd probably live off of mushrooms. I have yet to encounter a variety I am not fond of.

I've used your mushroom rice recipe many times; my friends all love it!

Mimi | 23 September, 2011 - 18:46

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

I love mushrooms, but can only get the normal button kind here in Egypt. I have recently found dried mushrooms, but the grocer had no idea what kind they were. they are fairly big, fluted in shape and seem to be 'veined' and are thick and meaty. They are not 'Black Mushrooms' which I get at my local Asian restaurant, because those are smooth.

Can dried mushrooms be dangerous? Can they have bad fungus in them? or are they ok since they are soaked then again cooked?

Ameirah | 24 September, 2011 - 09:40

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

hi ameirah,

i don't know what kind of dried mushrooms you have in egypt, but i'd think if they are dried, they'd be ok to use once you reconstitute them and cook them. here in NY, i often use the 'black mushrooms' that we find in chinese stores. for a long time, i didn't think the chinese black mushrooms were the same species as shiitake, because once reconstituted in hot water and cooked, they were so much meatier, and looked different than fresh shiitakes. but i'm told they are the same. i sometimes prefer using the dried ones because they are so much meatier and taste stronger. that's why i think the chinese dry so much food stuff; it actually concentrates the flavor.

maki, thanks for this recipe. i have recently found in japanese stores small packets of cultivated bunashimeji and maitake mushrooms, and i often add them to vegetables along with enoki. btw, i love shiitake and eringi as well. i find the eringi so meaty and perfect for sautees with other vegetables.

thanks again.

piaba

piaba | 30 September, 2011 - 05:44

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

For having tried this one before, this is a truly heavenly recipe Maki. I do it in foil too, though more frequently I put the foil pack in the rice steamer as I cook rice (that was inspired by one of your earlier posts, I think) than I bake them in the oven as it's not quite cool enough for using the oven when the mushroom season really hits here. Early in the fall, it's IMO also the best way to cook them on the barbecue (when I barbecue them, I sometime add a few slices of leek and a tbs of sake to the pack). I open the pack a few minutes at the end, so they get just a bit of the smoke taste.

Instead of fresh sudachi (that are insanely expensive around here, the rare times we even have them), I have to make do with bottled sudachi juice, or sometimes a dash of sudachi-infused rice vinegar when I'm out of the former (the same brand has a vinegar infused with kaposu, but I've not found a local store that carries it yet). I've tried fresh lime (and if I make them for guests I still put a quarter in the plate as I like the visual contrast) but I think even the bottled sudachi adds a lot more "zing".

A bunch of chopped mitsuba from the garden (the last of the season...) upon serving, and voilà!

I'll certainly try adding butter one day (I'm kind of encouraged to try it by the fact that you don't seem to have qualms, and that it's forcibly not Japanese butter you use), that sounds like a nice idea. Just a bit must balance really well the acidity of the sudachi.

I'm/was a bit reluctant to use butter in japanese dishes, and I've rarely tried some that do - both of which sounds a bit silly, I guess. What made me hesitate so much is the fact nearly all those recipes I have that use it warn at the same time that western butter don't taste or act like japanese butter (though they don't really elaborate on the difference - can it really be this great? - nor advise you on what type of western butter would be best), and some even advise to do the recipe without the butter (or in some cases, to add cream to the butter). I've mostly seen comments on the supposedly important (recipe-breaking) differences in either kaiseki or rather fancy "new" japanese cuisine books by trendy restaurant chefs - and most of my japanese cooking is rather of the homecooking kind that rarely calls for butter (I guess some more contemporary ones like Harumi might, though), and I've actually wondered if a homecook should really worry about that and the difference in taste or texture/effect is worth not making those recipes (and if it's only something for kaiseki chefs' to worry about alongside stuff like after how many minutes after shaving bonito flakes they just can't be used anymore by their standards, what type of western butter you think fit best from your experience?

By extrapolation since they suggest cream as a substitute in some recipes (those that put some butter in a western fusion sauce usually), and butter + cream as the substitue in at least two I remember (the popular modern pasta dish with spicy cod roe, and a fancy version of potato salad that called for jap. butter to cook the carrots in, or western butter with a dash of creme at the end you then let reduce), I would guess japanese butter is fairly rich and very onctuous, and, I would guess too it's generally unsalted? It sounds a bit like what we call country-style/beurre paysan/beurre artisanal - which is really rich and most often unsalted, would be a good choice)

To get back to mushrooms, I quite envy you the European offering of wild ones for decent prices. We have more problems finding some of those fresh (and wild) here - and even more for cheap - than finding the three or four most used Japanese mushrooms that are increasingly popular (and cheap, now that China has invaded the market with their grown ones. Grown, but their closed caps more-like-donko-than-regular shiitake are still a solid improvement in taste over what we had even five years ago.. and much cheaper). They even started selling the local (sort of, they come from the boreal forest in bareley inhabited areas way up north near James Bay) matsutake at some farmer markets for a few weeks in the fall. They're really great wild mushrooms, with closed caps and a really nice texture - and being local they're still in top shape when they arrive at the market (unlike those from the midwest or the West Coast, just as expensive but a little tired - that we used to get), though I suspect they taste nothing like the japanese ones. They do have a nice aroma, and they taste good and are sort of worth their price if compared to the the other wild mushrooms we have (they go for 30 to 50$/pound - about the most expensive here with wild morilles, discounting truffles which are in another league), but no matter how I've cooked them (from grilled to stewed on their own or incorporated in nabe dishes) they don't quite fit the "out of this world" bill - and I do love my mushrooms. If they're even close to what the Japanese wild ones are like, I'm totally baffled by the prices they fetch there.

Those ancient clay models are amazing (thanks so much for bringing attention on them!). Sounds like the notion of having practical uses for life-like food models in Japan goes a loooonnnnngg way back.:P (out of curiosity as I bet info of them will all be in Japanese, are they Jômon? Ignore the question if it's already in your article that I'll go read next)

Dominic | 26 September, 2011 - 06:55

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

Nutrition, health, delicious -- mushroom.
My family love it.

tracy | 26 September, 2011 - 07:11

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

Great article, but I have to let you know that oyster mushrooms are not boletes. Here's a quick guide on some common (to North America at least) wild mushrooms that can be found, harvested, and eaten fairly safely. http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/outdoor-recreation/how/mushrooms/edibl...

Another great mushroom resource online is http://mushroomexpert.com/ if you want to expand your knowledge beyond wild edibles or just figure out what that weird-looking stuff on your carpet is...

lhinelle | 26 September, 2011 - 18:55

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

Oops, I actually meant pleurotus. Both pleurotus and boletus are available at markets here actually (and sold under those names), but I was talking about the pale pleurotus. Lovely in omelettes. Corrected now!

maki | 27 September, 2011 - 21:03
lhinelle | 28 September, 2011 - 05:33

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

What a great article. I wonder what other ancient peoples used the same method for finding edible mushrooms and plants. Also, the きのこのホイル焼き is a must for camping trips!

Roberto | 7 October, 2011 - 07:57

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

Oh dear god, I just tried this recipe.

The taste is still lingering in my mouth. If I died before it went away, I would not complain. This has become an instant favorite for both me and my bf. I'd been meaning to try it since I read it, but I hadn't been able to hit the Asian market until recently.

I used enoki, a big oyster, some leftover cremini mushrooms and one other kind... Which turned out to be my favorite of the group. I was hoping you could help me figure out what it was.

It came in a cluster like enoki, but instead of being long and stringy, they were stout and somewhat firmer, sprouting up and away from the center, 1-6 cm high. The label was definitely Japanese, though I couldn't read it. They were all white raw, but after cooking the caps took on slightly more color than the stems. Any ideas?

Gina | 9 November, 2011 - 04:34

Re: Ancient mushroom models, plus a recipe for oven-steamed ...

I am guessing they were buna shimeji, or white shimeji mushrooms. Do any of these look like them?

http://www.google.com/search?q=buna+shimeji&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=Hk...

maki | 9 November, 2011 - 11:45

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