The matsutake mushroom (sometimes known as “pine mushroom”) is treated as a luxury ingredient in Japan. This doesn’t seem to be the case in most of the rest of the world, with many considering matsutake’s characteristic aroma to be off-putting. The fungus owes its pungency to a chemical compound known as “matsutake alcohol”, and has long been prized in Japan for this unique fragrance.
In Japan, there is even an old proverb: nioi matsutake, aji shimeji (matsutake for fragrance, shimeji for flavor). Matsutake is very expensive and can only harvested in autumn, making it a scarce and highly seasonal ingredient. On the other hand, shimeji is relatively inexpensive, can be enjoyed year-round, and is packed with flavor. The proverb means that merits can be found in all things.
No matter how you look at it, the love for the fragrance of matsutake seems to be deeply ingrained in Japanese food culture. Naturally, different countries and cultures have different perceptions. Any dish featuring matsutake is sure to bring excitement to a Japanese dining table. There are a variety of ways to enjoy matsutake, but the most popular are probably yaki-matsutake (grilled matsutake) and matsutake-gohan (matsutake rice).
Most methods of cooking matsutake focus on preserving and presenting the fragrance. Another example is dobin-mushi, a soup prepared inside an earthenware teapot, where the entire teapot is steamed.
Due to its price, matsutake is not the sort of ingredient you normally consider for day-to-day cooking, but recently, supermarkets have begun to carry products such as matsutake-scented soup stocks. These products allow you to enjoy the fragrance of matsutake with your meal, and are a good starting point for first-timers. Matsutake can quickly become an irresistible (and expensive) taste — like all good things, please enjoy in moderation!