Monday, September 19, 2005


Magical Mushrooms

A few years ago, Kim Jong Il gave Koizumi a box of mushrooms as a gift.

No, not those kind of 'shrooms.

Koizumi threw away the box, according to one news report, and talks between the countries were stalled. This was at the height of the abductee drama, and Koizumi wasn’t about to be pacified by a box of mushrooms.

But wait. About those mushrooms. Why on earth would Kim Jong Il even give a box of mushrooms as a gift in the first place? These were not ordinary mushrooms. They were matsutake, a delicacy that is now in season. I took this picture last year in Kyoto, and you can see how the store has displayed matsutake alongside chestnuts to indicate the changing season.

Many insist that matsutake have a unique and delicate flavor. If you mention matsutake to Japanese, they will most likely nod knowingly, then simultaneously lament the price tag. Here's the thing; matsutake cannot be cultivated. While it is possible to cultivate many kinds of mushrooms, like shiitake or enoki, the same cannot be said for matsutake. They tend to grow in the wild alongside red pine, the word matsu meaning "pine" in Japanese, and must be picked by those who know where the wild mushrooms grow.

However, matsutake do not only grow in Japan. They also grow in China and in Korea, and in recent years, more and more matsutake have made their way from the mainland to Japan. However, there are some people, who shall remain nameless, who have insisted to me that matsutake that come from Korea are not "real" matsutake, a ridiculous assumption as any, but one that apparently is very meaningful to some.

I took this picture in an Osaka food store, and you can see that the matsutake are carefully marked; some are from China, some are not. The price tag, if you look closely, ranges from around 50 to 80 bucks. That gives you an idea of the "value" of Kim Jong Il's gift.

I became friendly with a Japanese man now living in America who insists that matsutake also grow in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. He used to pick matsutake in Japan, and when he moved to California, made it his business to find where in the New World the matsutake grew. I did some research and learned that there is indeed a very active market for matsutake, with passionate pickers in Washington and Oregon. Some of these mushrooms are airlifted to Japan, though again I imagine there will be some customers who grumble that these matsutake are not "real," but eat them anyway.

This Japanese friend took me picking for mushrooms in California on New Year’s Day. It was a glorious morning, just three of us moving through the woods, sniffing the air for mushrooms. I wouldn't recommend that you do this at home, of course, as there are numerous reports of people mistakenly eating fatal mushrooms. In our case, we were with someone experienced and that made all the difference. As we walked back to the car with an 80 pound backpack filled with matsutake, I thought of how much it was worth were we to sell it, and how much matsutake pickers would like to know where we had just been.

But that would be telling.

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