The Good Forager

Mushroom foraging is not for beginners. Pluck the wrong cap and you could be taking your life into your hands. No matter how innocuous, one incorrect identification could be downright deadly. Great risks yield little payoff, especially when you consider the fact that shiitake, arguably the greatest prize for sheer umami content, will never cross your path.


Photo courtesy of Sugimoto

Shiitake are native to Southeast Asia where they do grow wild, but these days are largely recognized as a cultivated mushroom. Although there are no definitive written records, there’s a good chance shiitake had been growing naturally in Takachiho-go, at the foot of Mt. Sobo over 10,000 years ago, when broadleaf forests spread across Japan.


Photo courtesy of Sugimoto

Today, Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms grow on sweet sap oak logs in the forest. Completely exposed to the elements, the growers use a 1,000-year-old Japanese approach to nurturing sustainable tree logs, fostering an environment as close to those original conditions know to produce the best tasting and textured Shiitake.

Larger agribusinesses cannot grow the same quality shiitake. Families living deep in the mountains grow Sugimoto shiitake in harmony with nature, without the dangers associated with traditional foraging. In each forest micro-climate, it is essential to fine-tune the variable factors of nature, exposure to the rain, wind, and the sunlight through the trees, with the work and working hours changing according to the weather. These are hard-earned skills beyond the grasp of business people, thinking only of time cards and profits. Truly a labor of love, over 600 independent growers can elevate the act of foraging to an art form.

In the spirit of shepherd’s pie, forager’s pie is what I’d like to think the skillful shiitake grower might enjoy with their harvests. Earthy, bright herbs like thyme and rosemary sing in concert to further accentuate those aromatic woodsy base notes. Instead of ground beef or lamb, chopped shiitake mushrooms add an incredibly meaty bite and umami flavor, possibly even surpassing the original in sheer depth of flavor. Gently browned tempeh boosts the protein to incredible heights, without spiking the fat content or adding any cholesterol, of course.

Crowned with rich, buttery mashed potatoes, everything comes together quickly in a single skillet, making advanced preparation, transportation, and even cleanup a breeze. This one-pan meal is casual and comforting enough for an easy weeknight dinner, yet made with such luxurious flavors that it would a suitable centerpiece for a holiday feast.

For a satisfying meatless entree that’s wildly delicious, you don’t need to go scrounging around for the key ingredient. Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms are now available on Kroger.com, Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and their own website. Now that’s my kind of fool-proof foraging.

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It’s My Party and I’ll Dry If I Want To

When it comes to food preservation, no technique has withstood the test of time quite like drying and dehydration. Used as early as 12,000 BCE, prehistoric people discovered that they could sun-dry seeds to extend their lifespan exponentially. To this day, the very same approach is a perfectly reasonable way to put away fruits and vegetables for later days. The process can even intensify flavors, transforming simple ingredients into entirely new building blocks capable of creating richer eating experiences altogether.

Such is the case for Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, which gain all of their incredible umami and tanmi qualities through careful dehydration. In the olden days, freshly harvested shiitake were dried over wood or charcoal fires, incorporating a more smoky, woodsy flavor, and also a lot more uncontrollable variation. If the fires burned too hot, the mushrooms would shrivel up, dried to a crisp. Too cold, and the tortuously slow drying process would destroy much of the delicate taste and aroma.

Now employing the best technology in the business, far-infrared drying reduces the moisture content quickly and efficiently while removing any possible insect or microbe content. This is why Sugimoto is the only shiitake mushroom company in the world that has received kosher certification.

Pantry staples that won’t let you down, waiting patiently for their time to shine, are crucial for quick meals, times of scarcity, and outright emergencies. When the winter storm knocked out power for days and water for weeks, you’d better believe I was thanking my lucky stars I had all sorts of dried soups saved away. Beyond just making for an easy, comforting starter, powdered soup mixes can be the catalyst to countless meals. Add a packet to sour cream and you’ve got a bowlful of dip, ready to party. Toss it with cubes of tofu for a flavorful, crispy finish. And of course, rehydrate it with less liquid to make a concentrate, mimicking America’s favorite casserole starter for all sorts of hotdishes.

You can effortlessly make your own instant cream of mushroom soup mix yourself to bypass any dairy or questionable ingredients. Sugimoto dried shiitake powder is the essential base that lays a foundation of incredible savory flavor, blending seamlessly into a creamy almond flour foundation. Ample pieces of chopped shiitake mushrooms add a more satisfying texture, making it a delight to enjoy all by itself. Springing back to life with just a little water and warmth, it’s a deeply soothing, soulful blend that could be the catalyst to many more meals to come.

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Soaking it All in

In a world dominated by quick-fix meals, instant entrees, and fast food, it can be hard to deliberately slow down. If there’s a way to cook faster to eat sooner, why deny yourself that immediate gratification? Patience is truly a virtue, yielding even greater rewards to those who can wait. This is true of life in general, and shiitake mushrooms in particular.

Yes, dried shiitake mushrooms need time to fully rehydrate, reviving to their original brilliance with even greater savory depth than before. Most recipes haphazardly plunge them into boiling water for 15 – 20 minutes, rushing through the process just to get them to a generally edible state. Sure, they’ll be soft enough to slice, but so much of their rich, distinctive aroma will be lost that you might as well be using a bland button mushroom instead. These hot shiitakes will be a far cry from the flavorful powerhouses they could have been.

Sugimoto shiitake are dried using a far-infrared drying approach, which minimizes moisture to less than 9% (whereas others are 12% or more) to preserve the highest quality possible. This process breaks the Shiitake’s cell membrane, allowing it to release a greater amount of Guanylate when rehydrated. Soaking for at least 12 hours and ideally 24 hours in cold water slowly, gently coaxes out the full range of savory flavors locked inside. The texture is remarkably better, too, producing plump caps with a juicy yet tender bite.

If you must take a shortcut, there is one way to speed things up; remove the stems first, and you can reduce the overall time to about 8 hours. You do still need to plan ahead of course, but if you start thinking about dinner at breakfast time like me, this trick is an invaluable ace to have up your sleeve. That said, patience is definitely not my strong suit, so I’ve learned to keep soaked shiitake in the fridge at all times, ready whenever cravings might strike.

One of my favorite pasta dishes is mushroom stroganoff, which has evolved considerably through equal parts education and experimentation. It can be thrown together in minutes or raised to new culinary heights given greater advanced planning. Any sort of pasta will do in a pinch, but homemade pasta infused with the deep savory flavor of Sugimoto dried shiitake powder puts it in a whole new category of everyday indulgence.

Garlicky cream sauce bathes the cascading noodles in a tidal wave of luscious mushroom goodness, infusing every element of the dish with incredible amounts of umami and tanmi. Though the original version utilizes rough cuts of beef, thickly sliced shiitake are meaty enough to satisfy without any sacrifice.

It really does pay to slow down, take the long route, and savor every moment. This mushroom stroganoff may take a while from start to finish, but it disappears quickly.

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Stuffed to the Gills

Just like people, shiitake mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes.

Uniformity might be prized for mass-produced, cultivated mushrooms grown indoors, but greater flavor can be found in nature. Forest-grown Sugimoto shiitake are exposed to greater variation in sun, rain, and wind which in turn creates a greater depth of the flavor, richer texture, and higher nutritional value. This method has withstood the test of time, serving Japanese growers well for over 1000 years with countless bountiful harvests to show for it.

Since it is impossible to control the weather, these wild shiitake mushrooms develop into two primary classifications, largely dependent on the season: Donko and Koshin.

Donko are gathered before the mushroom can fully bloom or open up. These shiitake are a thicker, chewier, and meatier, but smaller overall. The name itself from the Chinese word for “winter,” as they’re harvested primarily in the cooler months from January to April.

Koshin, bearing flatter but larger caps, are named after the word for “fragrant.” Brilliantly aromatic, they produce an ambrosial bouquet of umami before you even take a bite. Fully mature when harvested, they’re inactive during the summer months due to the high temperatures, but flourish in fall for plentiful late autumn yields.

Although they’re born of the same spores, the mushrooms change shape and texture depending on the time of harvest.

Both varieties perform splendidly in a wide range of dishes, but to maximize the unique qualities of such delicately nuanced, artisanal products, it’s important to know their strengths. The best way to honor the work of the 600 family farmers, who painstakingly nurturing these spores deep in the mountains, is to treat their shiitake with care and respect.

Utilizing the inherent textural advantages the Donko shiitake has to offer in creating a firmer, juicier bite, they’re the only type of dried mushroom that can be brought back to life as a satisfying base for stuffing. Most others would buckle under the weight if dressed with a mere teaspoon topping, but these sturdy caps stand up to the demands as superlative finger foods.

Quick, homemade nut cheese dazzles with fresh herbs and a luscious creamy texture that seems to defy its dairy-free components. Vegan yogurt adds a slightly tangy, funky note, like earthy yet mild goat cheese, perfectly paired with the rich umami mushrooms underneath. Thick enough to spread on a bagel like cream cheese, it has a distinctly buttery quality thanks to a touch of nutritional yeast and sweet white miso paste. To enhance the aroma that might be lessened in the Donko shiitake, additional dried shiitake powder gives this schmear an irresistible final savory punch.

Grown in harmony with nature, both Koshin and Donko Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms lend that same symphonic balance to every dish.

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Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking

Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.

Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.

Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.

Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.

Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.

Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.

Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.

Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.

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Tanmi, the Latest Ancient Taste Sensation

Umami is well known and highly regarded as the fifth taste, the savory flavors we all know and love, but do you know about the sixth taste? Tanmi is a bit harder to describe, defying direct translation from Japanese to English, which explains a large part of its much slower ascent into widespread awareness.

Working in concert with the rich, robust tastes associated with umami, it provides a balancing counterpoint. “Natural” and “fresh” are the best words to explain it; the light, delicate touch of a practiced chef, emphasizing the inherent goodness of an ingredient without heavy seasoning. Start with the best food and allow it to shine for the greatest example of tanmi in action.

The gentle whisper of kombu infused into pale amber dashi broth? The subtle nutty, toasted green tea leaves that go into a hojicha latte, brightened with whole bean soy milk? You guessed it: those utterly enthralling gustatory experiences are all thanks to tanmi.

Shiitake, though typically associated with heavy, bold, hearty dishes, can also pack a punch of tanmi that will enhance any meal when properly harnessed. Especially when employing Sugimoto Shiitake Powder, just a pinch goes a long way to amplify the carefully layered flavors already developing, without creating an overwhelming mushroom sledgehammer that obliterates delicate nuances.

In the case of seared hearts of palm “scallops”, in fact, there’s no discernible mushroom character at all. It just serves as a spotlight to let the vegetables themselves shine. Like when salt is expertly applied, the results shouldn’t taste overtly salty, but some how, almost imperceptibly, indescribably, better.

Resting on a lush bed of cauliflower puree, tender sliced hearts of palm seamlessly take the place of seafood. Crunchy bites of pistachio punctuate the creamy base, which is all at once light yet decadent. Seasoned with bright, fresh lemon and parsley, the gentle savory undercurrent running through the complete plate could easily sweep the unsuspecting diner out with the tide.

Tanmi is also associated with the satisfaction after eating; a state of zen and contentment, rather than a food coma. One plate will crush all food cravings without leaving you feeling weighed down.

Create the best versions of your favorite dishes with the secret power of tanmi in your tool belt. Sugimoto Shiitake Powder is your ticket to instant culinary elevation, and ultimately, gratification.

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