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Shimeji is a term used to refer to a group of mushrooms with similar flavor profiles used in Japanese cuisine. These mushrooms are native to East Asia and they can also be found in some parts of Europe. Shimeji mushrooms are often available from Asian grocery stores in both fresh and dried form, and they can sometimes be purchased at supermarkets. They are also sometimes known as beech mushrooms, a reference to the substrate that some types of shimeji prefer.
These mushrooms are white to creamy brown in color, growing in clusters with small, rounded, tight caps. The highly prized hon-shimeji mushroom is difficult to cultivate because it is a mycorrhizal fungus that grows in a symbiotic relationship with plants, while buna-shimeji mushrooms grow on decaying organic material and are relatively easy to grow.
When raw, these mushrooms have a bitter flavor. Once cooked, they develop a richy, nutty flavor and they will remain crunchy if lightly cooked. They are rich in the flavor known as “umami” in Japanese cuisine. “Umami” is often translated as “savory” and it is difficult to describe, although it can be found in a number of different foods and is likened to a hearty, meaty flavor. Shimeji mushrooms can be used in soups, stews, stir fries, and a wide variety of other dishes as an accent or feature ingredient, depending on the tastes of the cook.
If cooks are using fresh mushrooms, it is advisable to gently brush and rinse them before use to remove soil. The mushrooms should be lightly cooked to retain their crunchiness while taking the edge off their bitter flavor. Dried mushrooms usually need to be rehydrated for use. The easiest way to rehydrate mushrooms is to cover them in a layer of boiling water. The mushrooms will swell as they take on water and then they can be drained and used. If the water is reserved, it can be used as a flavoring and to deglaze pans.
If a recipe calls for shimeji mushrooms and none are available, cooks can use oyster mushrooms as a substitute or experiment with other mushroom varieties that are known for having a savory, slightly nutty flavor. It is often possible to order shimeji online through companies that supply Japanese ingredients. Prices vary depending on the company, the season, and whether the mushrooms are being sold fresh or dried. Bulk pricing is sometimes available and cooks may want to consider placing a group order with friends.