A taste of Korea’s famous fungiHerbalists and physicians have been known to search for mushrooms to extract cures for diseases. Epicures and chefs consider them to be one of the most cherished ingredients in the food world.
And the Korean Peninsula is full of them, home to more than 2,000 varieties, according to Cho Duck-hyun, a professor of biology at Woosuk University, in Jeonju, South Jeolla province.
They thrive in the country’s fertile land, in both hot and cold seasons, and the mushrooms have evolved along with Korea’s plant-rich environment. Because of the similar climate and proximity, Japan also has many of Korea’s indigenous mushrooms.
They blossom in the shadows ― intoxicatingly aromatic, but unlike jungle flowers; earthy but unlike evergreens. Surreptitiously, they sprout tiny umbrellas above a bed of fallen leaves, or silently they feed on the dead.
Most mushrooms found in Korean forests, their natural habitat, are either poisonous or not ideal for consumption. Fewer than 20 kinds of mushrooms are available commercially. About half of them, including yeongji beoseot (Ganoderma lucidum or Reishi), dongchunghacho (Cordyceps militaris), norugungdengi beoseot (Hericium erinaceum or yamabushitake), chaga beoseot (Inonotus obliquus or charcoal shelf), are used for medicinal purposes.
Most edible mushrooms, such as mogi beoseot, songi beoseot, neutari beoseot, are still found in local forests in the fall, with mulberry, pine and hazel nut trees as the dominant species.
Except for pine mushrooms, most mushrooms are farmed indoors and are readily available in the market throughout the year.
(Tricholoma matsutake or matsutake mushroom)
The pine mushroom, known as matsutake in Japanese, is one of the most valued edible mushrooms in Korea. They are the truffles of Asia.
During the peak season in the fall, a plate of freshly prepared pine mushrooms can be extremely costly. Fresh, top-grade pine mushrooms hand-picked in pine tree forests in the east or south of Korea can cost as much as 800,000 won ($670) per kilogram, while frozen, low-grade pine mushrooms imported from China cost 40,000 won per one kilogram.
Once the season passes, pine mushrooms are sold frozen. In Gyeongdong Market in northern Seoul, which specializes in herbal medicine, shoppers can buy pine mushrooms at discounted prices year-round.
Top-grade pine mushrooms are about eight centimeters (three inches) long or longer, with an ivory stem firm and uniformly thick. The round cap, which is medium to dark brown, is closed. The wider the cap and the more irregular the shape of the stem, the cheaper the mushroom.
Fresh mushrooms are wrapped dry in paper towels and kept at a cool temperature. They are usually stored together with fresh pine needles to preserve the aroma.
The best part of pine mushrooms is enjoying the bursting, earthy pine flavor and juicy meaty flesh. To taste the rich and complex flavor is to cook minimally. First, remove dirt with a dry cloth (or wash as quickly as possible in running water if the dirt persists). Slice them vertically and serve fresh or roast lightly on a stone grill. The ideal dipping sauce is just a dash of fleur de sel or freshly squeezed sesame oil.
Frozen mushrooms still maintain their strong pine aroma, but because they lose their firm texture, it’s best to use only as flavoring instead of as a main dish.
Thaw the mushrooms at room temperature, remove impurities using a sharp knife and rinse quickly. To enhance stews, soups or sauteed dishes, add the mushrooms right before serving and cook only briefly.
(Pleurotus eryngii or King Oyster Mushroom or Boletus of the Steppes)
In 1986, when the new breed, which was already popular in Europe, North Africa and Russia, was introduced to Koreans, the mushroom was categorized as the large Pleurotus and was later named saesongi beoseot.
Farmed in disinfected, environmentally friendly labs, the mushroom yields dense flesh in the stem, whose quality is often compared to pine mushrooms, except they are far less expensive. A pack of three large Boletuses costs less than 3,000 won.
The mushrooms come with thick stems with slightly conical, light brown tops. Top-grade mushrooms should have uniformly shaped, lightly fuzzy caps and clean stems, which are firm and thick without any abnormal growths or damage.
Saesongi beoseot has a very mild flavor with a slightly sweet and woody taste, which is faintly similar to pine mushrooms.
They have no calories but are rich in Vitamin B2 and B6 and Vitamin D and calcium and can minimize cholesterol, which is good for those with high blood pressure or heart conditions. The mushrooms also contain Vitamin B12, good for severe anemic patients, and unusually high amounts of Vitamin C, a natural antioxidant.
Like pine mushrooms, minimal cooking is recommended for saesongi beoseot. Parboiling right before serving in a soup or stew can preserve the mushroom’s natural aroma.
Other serving suggestions include thinly slicing them and lightly roasting them in rapeseed or olive oil or adding them to a cold salad. The mushrooms are a wonderful accompaniment to beef, skewers or barbecue dishes, and can be marinaded with meat.
(Lentinus edodes or shiitake mushroom)
Shiitake mushrooms are naturally found in latifoliate trees, such as oak, chestnut trees across vast regions of Asia and New Zealand from spring through fall, and they have become a representative ingredient of Asian cuisine.
Shiitake mushrooms have been favored by many chefs because they enhance meat and vegetable dishes.
The mushrooms’ caps vary in size and are characteristically dark brown, often covered with scales or cracks to reveal a white interior.
In the market, shiitake mushrooms are readily available, fresh or dried. Fresh shiitake mushrooms should have a taut appearance, creamy white gills behind the soft caps and firm and moist stems.
Darkened, wet gills or hard-dried stems indicate a lower grade.
A medium-size package containing about 15 mushrooms costs less than 5,000 won.
Fresh shiitake mushrooms offer a strong earthy, spicy aroma and almost pungent aftertaste.
Do not wash the mushrooms; remove impurities and cut off the end tip of the stem. Soak dried shiitake mushrooms, which are richer in Vitamin D than fresh ones, in lukewarm water for half an hour or more before cooking. The stock from dried shiitake mushrooms can be used for soup or stew bases.
(Pleurotus ostreatus or oyster mushroom)
Neutari beoseot is found at the bottom of aged or dead trees from late fall to early spring, but most neutari beoseot found in the market are farmed. Their habitat is not limited to Asia but all over the world.
They have extra-tender caps in taupe gray and white stems. When cooked, the mushrooms become slightly rubbery with an earthy, woody flavor.
Top-grade mushrooms, which are available in various sizes, have a smooth and moist surface, which has thin vertical lines, and they are often lumped together at the root.
Mild in flavor, readily available and inexpensive (a medium-size package costs less than 3,000 won), neutari beoseot are used in various dishes. Although they are rarely eaten fresh, uncut but separated mushrooms are tossed in soups or stews, or sauteed in oil with other seasonal vegetables.
Because of the chewy texture and subtle flavor, neutari beoseot can be coated in a potato starch and egg yolk batter and deep-fried like tempura.
(Agaricus bisporus or Button Mushroom)
This creamy-white, round mushroom, which soon turns brown, with thin scales on the surface and dark gray gills, is one of the most popular mushrooms.
Top-grade mushrooms come with a pristine, pure white surface on caps and short, thick stems. Behind the cap, it is initially closed, but as time passes, it reveals itself to be very dark brown, an indication of staleness.
Mild in flavor, delightfully toothsome in texture and readily available, yangsongi beoseot can be used in virtually any dishes or sauces, Western or Asian. When cooked for a prolonged period of time, the mushrooms shrink, becoming slightly rubbery in appearance and taste.
(Auricularia Auricula-judae or ear mushroom)
Literally “tree ear mushroom” in English, mogi beoseot resemble ears when found in aged latifoliate trees, such as willow, mulberry or ash trees.
The mushrooms are also known as kikurage in Japanese. The mushrooms are usually only available dried, which can be stored for a long period of time.
When the black, crumpled dried mushrooms are soaked in lukewarm water for about 15 to 20 minutes, they turn into wrinkly, semi-transparent and jelly-like pieces about two inches wide. A small package containing about 20 dry pieces costs less than 2,000 won in local markets.
Rich in protein, calcium, iodine, iron, fiber and Vitamin D, ear mushrooms are reputed to be good for those with osteoporosis. Dark brown mushrooms are chewy, like jelly, and full of woody, earthy flavors. The mushroom is rarely eaten raw, but because of the strong color, interesting shape and unusual texture, they can add a special zest to stew, sauteed dishes or hot pots.
(Tricholomataceae or enokitake mushroom)
Popularly known as enokitake in Japanese cooking, paengi beoseot used to be farmed on pine tree saw dust. These days, the mushrooms are organically grown in polyethylene bottles in sterilized factories.
The appearance of paengi mushroom is similar to that of bean sprouts; the pale ivory stems can grow up to 10 centimeters long and have tiny semi-spherical caps. A small, individually wrapped bunch costs about 800 won. Yellowed caps or wilted stems means the mushrooms are stale.
Paengi mushrooms are high in amino acids, which are said to be good for preventing cancer. Before cooking, run the mushrooms in running water as quickly as possible, cut off the roots and separate the mushrooms.
Fresh paengi beoseot can be added as a topping in cold dishes or salads. It has a distinctive aroma and a slippery, chewy texture when cooked. Because of the refreshingly appetizing appearance, it is often added in soup or hot pot dishes. Add the mushrooms last or cook as little as possible.
by Ines Cho
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