JAPAN'S FONDNESS FOR WILD EDIBLE PLANTS
The Japanese people have a special fondness for wild edible plants. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: the “gathering of edible wild greens, known in Japanese as sansai, is still a beloved pastime here. Sansai such as fuki no to butterbur, udo mountain celery and warabi fern fiddleheads, are collected mostly in spring. Autumn is a good time to look for wild fruits and berries. Several local species are not only edible, but downright delicious. One of the best of these is the akebi. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, October 25, 2012]
Akebi (genus Akebia, called akebia in English) are hardy vines native to East Asia. Four or five species are recognized, two of which grow wild in Japan. Akebi, commonly called five-leaf akebia or chocolate vine in English (A. quintata), has palmate compound leaves with five oblong-shaped leaflets each; while mitsuba-akebi, or three-leaf akebia (A. trifoliate), has trifoliate leaves with only three leaflets. The fruits of both species are equally delicious. [Ibid]
The akebi fruits are oblong capsules about 10 centimeters long, yellow-brown at first but taking on a pastel purple-pink shade when mature. Ripe capsules split open along the long axis, revealing a mass of translucent gelatinous pulp inside. The best way to enjoy these wild treats is to just scoop out this sweet pulp and pop it into your mouth, spitting out the numerous tiny black seeds. In most parts of Japan, the thick rinds are simply discarded, but in some parts of the Tohoku region, it is these rinds that are greatly prized. Here the pulp is discarded, as the rinds are packed with miso-flavored ground meat and various vegetables and fried to make sumptuous snacks that are eaten during the winter months. [Ibid]
Akebi fruits occasionally make their way into urban grocery stores, but out in the countryside and mountains they are available along the sunny edge of woodlands. They are hardy, aggressive woody vines, with mature specimens twining their way to the top of 10-meter trees. The pink and white flowers bloom in late spring. Male and female flowers are separate, but both occur in the same cluster on each plant. The new spring sprouts of akebi vines are collected as sansei. They can be boiled, soaked in dashi sauce and topped with katsuobushi flakes of dried shipjack to make an ohitashi dish. In northern and mountainous regions, the akebi vines themselves are used for weaving baskets. Several ornamental varieties have also been developed.
About 376,000 tons of mushrooms were produced in 2000, up from 279,000 tons in 1990. Among the different kinds of mushrooms found in Japan are shimeji (with fingernail-size caps and sold in clusters) and enoki (very long and stringy white mushroom with pea-size caps).
Shiitake are brown mushrooms that sell for about $2 to $5 a bag at supermarkets. They are the most popular mushroom in Japan. In the wild they grow on mildly rotted logs and tree trunks, preferably the beech family. Commercially grown ones are grown on mushroom farms that consist of oak logs stacked inside a coppice forest.
In recent years the domestic production of shiitake has declined due to the flow of low-priced imports from China. The industry is also in decline because farmers are getting too old (their average age is over 60).
Oita is Japan’s largest domestic producer of shiitake mushrooms, producing about a third of Japan’s Shiitake harvest. It produced 1,300 tons in 2007, down from a peak of around 4,000 tons in 1984.
The wholesale price of Shiitake peaked at ¥6,812 per kilogram in 1983 before dropping to around ¥2,000 in the late 1980s when imports from China really began having an impact. With prices that low domestic production slumped. Things did not really recovering until the late 2000s, with prices reaching ¥4,859 per kilogram in 2008. The rise was tied to worries about the safety of food from China. Imports of Chinese shiitake mushrooms were around 7,000 tons in 2007, down from 9,000 tons in 1997.
Growing Shiitake Mushrooms
Japanese shiitake producers use a technique called “cultivation from withered logs” while Chinese producers employ the “fungus bed” method in which they inject nutritional supplements into hardened sawdust.
The mushroom log farming technique was developed in the 1930s. In the spring holes are drilled in oak logs that have dried for three or four months. Small dowels which have been impregnated with shiitake mycelium (fungi) are placed in the holes.
Shiitake mushrooms appear twice a year: in the spring and autumn. It takes more than a year for the fungi to spread throughout the log so that logs planted with fungi do not produce a crop of mushrooms until the following autumn. After that the logs produce several crops a year for several years.
Large scale growers keep their logs in plastic-sheet greenhouses with carefully-controlled temperature and humidity. Some farms don't use logs at all but grow the mushrooms in compacted blocks of sawdust. These mushrooms however have a thinner skin and lack the delicate smell of the oak-grown mushrooms.
Shiitake Origin Labels Face Curbs
According to Yomiuri Shimbun article: The government might require shiitake mushrooms now labeled "domestically produced" to be labeled "Chinese-grown" if they were cultivated in China but harvested in Japan. Under the current Japanese Agricultural Standards law, the place where the mushrooms are harvested determines the place of origin on the label. However, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has insisted the label list the place of origin as the place where the mushrooms have been grown for a longer period of time.
A shiitake producer in Gifu Prefecture told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "I label my shiitake 'domestically produced' because that's what consumers want. It's not illegal." “For the past 15 years, the producer has imported beds of growing shiitake from China and harvested the fully grown mushrooms in Japan. It takes four months to harvest shiitake after planting the fungi. In the case of the Gifu Prefecture producer, the shiitake are grown in China for three months before being imported into Japan, where they grow for about one more month. After they are harvested, they are shipped as domestically produced shiitake.
“According to the ministry, about 3,900 tons of beds of shiitake were imported from China in 2009, and most of the usable mushrooms likely were shipped as domestically produced products after being grown for only a short time inside the nation. The figure translates to about 1,300 tons of shiitake mushrooms sold in stores in one year. The 1,300-ton figure is nearly one-third of the shiitake grown and harvested in China. The quantity of shiitake grown mostly in China but labeled and shipped as domestically produced in 2009 doubled compared with the figure in 2007.
Matsutake mushrooms is an autumn delicacy in Japan and are regarded by some people as the world’s most delicious mushroom. Sort of like the truffles of the East, they sell for $300 an ounce. Their delicate aroma is regarded as especially pleasant. In the fall department stores sell baskets of ten mushrooms for between $80 and $160 depending on the size and quality of the mushrooms.
Matsutake are best consumed fresh and best eaten lightly grilled or quickly steamed. Sauteing, frying or poaching them destroys their delicate scent. The most prized matsutake dish, dobinmushi, a light soup made from matsutake, is gently steamed in an earthenware pot with chicken, pike conger and gingko tree nuts. It is often eaten after sashimi.
Matsutake mushrooms can be not be cultivated on farms. They grow in the wild in large stands of red pine in Japan, Korea and China. Similar but distinct matsutake species grow in the American Northwest, Europe and Canada.
Chinese-produced matsutake mushrooms are about five to ten times cheaper than Japanese-produced ones, selling for ¥1,380 for a 90 gram box with two or three mushrooms. Even so sales of Chinese-produced mushrooms have plummeted over concerns about food safety. Matsutake mushrooms are also imported from North Korea, Sweden and Canada. The Canadian ones cost about the same as mushrooms from China.
Ueda in the Shiodadaira region of Nagano Prefecture is located in area with lots red pine forest ideal for growing matsutake mushroom. Several restaurants there offer fresh matsutake meals at reasonable prices. Keita Takizawa, a farmer who owns 150,000 square meters of land on which the mushrooms grow told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Shiodadaira’s matsutake taste great because of the area’s optimal geological conditions.”
Describing a mushroom hunting trip Yasushi Wada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Heading to a mountain to forage for the fungi, Kaneo [Keita’s father] hinted the angle at which the mushrooms grow is important. He said the trick is to look up at the mountain slope, then to direct your gaze slightly downward. Even when he pointed out where the matsutake were growing, I could not tell until the dead leaves obscuring them from my view were removed.”
On a meal at Takizawa’s restaurant Wada wrote: “Back at Joyamaen, I sit before a matsutake hot pot. Keita suggests waiting seven minutes after the broth has simmered before taking my first taste of the dish. A deep aroma filled my nostrils as I began to chew. Although simmered in a soy sauce broth, the matsutake retained their bite.”
Growing Matsutake Mushrooms
Matsutake only come out in the autumn, The conditions for ideal matsutake growth are not well understood but this much is known: After matsutake spores fall to the earth they infect the roots of akamatsu red pines and other trees. The spores grow and spread and eventually turn the soil whitish and create white patches. Four or five years after this happens mushrooms appear. [Source: Kunio Kobinata, Yomiuri Shimbun]
Akumatsu trees between 30 and 70 years old are said to be best for growing matsutake, When white areas appear they expand in a circle. When mushrooms appear they can be harvested from the same spot for up to 40 years.
The problem is that events rarely unfold so simply and neatly. Less than 1 percent of matsutake spores germinate. Moreover matsutake fungus dies if it comes in contact with certain substances in the soil such as mold. Sewing spored by hand almost never produces mushrooms. Only one matsutake mushroom been raised in laboratory conditions and it only grew to the size of a tip of a person’ pinkie.
Production of matsutake mushrooms declined from 2,800 tons in 1960 to just 70 tons in 2008. One of the main reasons for the decline has been the degeneration of akamatsu forests. In the old days people used to clear the forests creating conditions suited for matsutake growth. These days people do this much less and consequently matsutake have trouble growing in soil that has been nourished with nutrients from too much decaying vegetation.
A farmer in Nagano Prefecture who raises matsutake in a 25 hectare forest told the Yomiuri Shimbun he carefully monitors soil conditions and air temperatures. He said a soil temperature of 19 degrees is best for producing sprouts and the forest should have some broad-leaf trees to create shade conditions ideal for mushrooms. He said that perhaps the most important thing is making sure the akamatsu trees are healthy and allowed to grow in a natural state. In Kyoto Prefecture, retirees have developed a large tract of akamatsu forests into matsutake growing areas and are having success coaxing mushroom out of places they didn’t grew before.
Matsutake Mushroom Production
Japanese-grown matsutake mushrooms are highly valued for their delicate flavor. They are produced mainly in Okayama, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures, with some especially tasty ones coming come from Kyoto’s Tamba region. Poaching of matsutake mushrooms is a problem in some places.
In 1941, the matsutake harvest in Japan was a record 10,000 tons. Today only around 50 tons is produced domestically. The decline has been blamed on urbanization and the planting of other kinds of trees, leaving less land for red pines to grow on. Today 97 percent of matsutake are imported, mostly from Canada, South Korea, China and the United States.
In 2008, Japan imported 1,329 tons of matsutake mushrooms, mostly from China, South Korea and northern Europe. Eringi are a kind of mushroom with a taste similar to matsutake. They can be cultivated in bottles.
Commercially producing matsutake is as much of a holy grail for horticulturists as producing truffles commercially. Japanese scientists have developed a fungal bed capable of producing Matsutake mushrooms. Shuicho Aono, a researcher at Yamagata University, has had the most success. Through a trial an error process he worked out a way for the mushroom spawns to develop into mushrooms.
The usual matsutake harvest is about 10 tons a year nationwide. Because the weather was bad the yield was only around three tons a year in the early 2000s. The year 2005---in which 64.8 tons of matsutake mushrooms were produced--- was particularly good year due to favorable summer rains and cool, autumn days.
Low matsutake harvests and higher than usual prices result from a lack of rainfall and cool summer temperatures. But not always. The sizzling heat wave in the summer of 2007 caused the leanest harvest of home-grown matsutake mushrooms since World War II. The high temperatures and lack of summer rainfall prevented the the mushroom’s fungal thread from growing. Wholesale priced reached ¥50,000 per kilogram, 50 percent higher than the previous year, with single mushrooms selling for as much as ¥20,000 and a box of four large mushrooms selling for ¥50,000.
Two Hundred Sickened in Bumper Year for Toxic Toadstools
According to a Yomiuri Shimbun article: “Poisonous mushrooms have sickened 209 people in 72 incidents in 2010 year as of October 20, already 10 more than was seen in 60 cases in all of 2007, which was the most that had occurred in the past five years. The high number of poisonings have led the Niigata prefectural government to issue an “outbreak warning” for the first time in 10 years.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , November 5, 2010]
“According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, poisoning incidents and even the sale of toxic mushrooms were confirmed in 26 prefectures, including Tokyo. The main culprits are the kusaurabenitake, tsukiyotake and nigakuritake fungi. In Fukushima Prefecture, two persons who had eaten kusaurabenitake were hospitalized temporarily for nausea and diarrhea. The prefecture has seen the largest number of poisonings---41 people sickened in 16 cases.” [Ibid]
“According to Shigeru Aono, senior director of the prefecture's mushroom promotion center in Koriyama, toxic mushrooms grew well this year due to the hot summer, which raised soil temperatures to about 25 C, a favorable environment for toadstool growth. Lower temperatures and wet weather since mid-September have also sped up the growth process, he said. "Amateurs that heard there was a lot of mushrooms this year picked some without knowing they were toxic," Aono said.” [Ibid]
“In some cases, even professionals have been tricked into picking poison fungus. Kusaurabenitake and nigakuritake were found on sale in Hiratamura, Fukushima Prefecture, and in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. Experts say it is important for people to get the mushrooms they pick examined at health centers or other facilities. The health ministry also carries information on its Web site about how to distinguish toxic mushrooms.” [Ibid]
Chestnuts in Japan
Chestnuts are very popular in Japan. Roasted chestnuts are sold in the autumn and winter. Chestnut-flavored cakes, ice cream with chestnut sauce and variety of other sweets made with chestnuts sell well. In the autumn many people eat boiled rice and chestnuts. Japanese say the best way to prepare chestnuts is to steam them for about 40 minutes with shell on, cut them in half and scoop out the fruit with a spoon.
Japan produces about 200,000 tons of chestnuts very year on its 28,400 hectares of chestnut orchards and imports an additional 20,000 tons. Many chestnuts are grown on trees that are regularly pruned to make sure all the leaves get enough sunshine to produce high-quality nuts. Unlike most fruits, the more the chestnuts are harvested the better they taste. The skins of chestnuts are difficult to peal off.
Tamba chestnuts grown in a region that stretches from eastern Hyogo Prefecture to western Kyoto Prefecture are said it be the sweetest, firmest and tastiest in Japan, Food experts attribute the flavor to the region’s day-and-night temperature variations and cold nights that induce the chestnuts to store up as much nutrition as possible to survive the winter. A Varity known as Gin-yoese os said to be the bets of Tamba chestnuts.
Archeological excavations indicate the chestnuts have been harvested in Japan since the Jomon period (10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.). Tamba means “silver bills.” The name is derived from a drought in the Edo period (1604-1867) when chestnuts were used in Tamba area as currency,
Seaweed in Japan
nori More than 1,200 varieties of seaweed are found in Japanese waters. Only about three are commonly eaten. Dried seaweed (nori) is processed into crumbly dark green sheets and can be made into gelatin used in jelly, ice cream and soy sauce. It is most commonly used to wrap rice balls and sushi rolls. Kelp is used a flavor enhancer in soups, noodles and sauces. Seaweed is an important source if iodine.
Japanese eat an average of 14 grams of seaweed a day. The most commonly consumed sea weed in Japan are kombu (kelp), nori ( Porphrya ), and wakame ( Undaria pinnatfida ). They are eaten outright and served with rice and used as a flavoring. Studies has shown that seaweeds helps to lower cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure and promote healthy digestion.
According to an article in Nature by French scientists Japanese have an intestinal bacteria similar to marine bacteria found in the sea that helps them digest sushi and is believed to have been derived from eating seaweed.
Five different kinds of edible seaweed are harvested on the small island of Futagama Jima and prepared for consumption through boiling in heavy iron pots and drying on racks.
Seaweed called laver is grown on farms off the coast in nets . The laver is harvested in the autumn when its is 30 to 40 centimeters long with easy-to maneuver square boats and a special machine that pulls aboard the laver-bearing nets.
About 40 percent of Japan's seaweed crop is grown in the Ariake Sea. In recent years the seaweed harvest has been less than expected as a result of the loss of important tidal areas due land reclamation.
Image Sources: Ray Kinnane, xorsyst blog, Japan Visitor, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013