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Tokyo Q&A: What are matsutake mushrooms, and why are they so expensive?

This chunky Japanese mushroom is more expensive than a truffle

Written by
Jessica Thompson

With their distorted trunks and grubby appearance, matsutake mushrooms are an unexpected contender for the world’s most expensive ingredients. Yet matsutake grown domestically in Japan can fetch prices that rival black truffles – about ¥15,000 per 100g (¥150,000 for 1kg). 

Matsutake have been a delicacy since ancient times in Japan, and are a long-standing harbinger of autumn. During the months of September and October, when the mushrooms make their brief seasonal appearance, you’ll find the 10-20cm long fungi packed carefully into wooden cases, elegantly displayed in high-end supermarkets and department stores. The mushrooms are prized for their strong, spicy aroma, meaty texture and earthy, piney taste. 

You’ll most commonly find matsutake on the menus of fine dining establishments like kaiseki, ryotei and sushi restaurants, where they are typically cooked with minimal seasoning to allow for their coveted natural aromas to shine. They might be sliced and served in light soups, added to chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), cooked with rice in the famous dish ‘matsutake gohan’, or simply, grilled over charcoal and served with salt and a squeeze of sudachi (Japanese lime). Punnets of matsutake are also given as gifts by people keen to impress their boss or in-laws. 

But why are these mushrooms so expensive, and why are people willing to fork out that kind of money for them? For starters, suitable habitat for matsutake to grow is rare they grow in the roots of red pine forests. These habitats have been shrinking in recent years, as they’re under threat by an invasive worm. Plus, matsutake are extremely difficult to cultivate artificially. Just this year, these mushrooms were designated as a threatened species for the first time by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Secondly, matsutake are harvested just once a year, and are very sensitive to changes in weather: if a season is too hot or dry, their numbers will wane and that pushes up the prices. And, aside from humans, matsutake are also very popular with local wildlife. All in all, rare mushrooms naturally call for a premium price tag. Are they worth it? Well, each to their own.

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