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Hon Shimeji mushrooms are handsome, brown-capped mushrooms that grow on thick, bulging white stems that swell towards the base. Hon Shimeji mushroom caps grow to 2 to 8 centimeters in width, and each mushroom can grow to 20 or 30 grams in weight. Hon Shimeji mushrooms are primarily found in Japan, where they are considered a delicacy. The Hon Shimeji has crisp flesh and a high natural glutamate level, which is responsible for its umami-rich flavor.
Wild Hon Shimeji mushrooms are available in the fall season. Cultivated Hon Shimejis may be found year-round.
Hon Shimeji is known as the “true shimeji mushroom”. It is classified as Lyophyllum shimeji, and grows wild in the forests of Japan. They should not be confused with brown beech mushrooms, which are also referred to commercially as “hon shimeji”, but which come under a completely different genus. Wild Hon Shimeji mushrooms are rare, and are in high demand – they are second only to the famous matsutake mushroom (a mushroom that is as sought-after in Japan as the truffle is in Europe). Like the matsutake, Hon Shimeji mushrooms are also considerably more expensive than common varieties of mushroom. Cultivated Hon Shimejis can cost as much as $80 per kilogram – twice the price of common mushrooms such as shiitakes. Wild Hon Shimeji mushrooms can cost from $100 to $200 per kilogram.
As with most other mushrooms, Hon Shimeji mushrooms contain potassium and are a good source of vitamins B and D. They are low in calories and fat, and may have anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties as they are rich in polysaccharides.
Hon Shimeji mushrooms most often feature in high-end Japanese restaurants, where they are often found grilled over charcoal or hot stones. They may also be used in soups, hot pots and sweet simmered dishes. They may be stir-fried and served with rice, or cooked as tempura. Although tempura encases each ingredient in a crispy, battered shell, it is also a cooking method that is meant to pay homage to the essence and purity of each ingredient – an excellent way to showcase the flavor of Hon Shimeji. In general, mushrooms can be stored in paper bags or wrapped in newspaper in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. Consume Hon Shimeji mushrooms within 10 days of storage.
Buddhism in Japan and the development of temple food, known as shojin ryori, has elevated the status of the mushroom in general in the country. Influenced by Buddhism, Japanese emperor Saga in the 9th century even passed a law prohibiting the eating of meat. Thanks to their high nutrient content and meaty, toothsome texture, the mushroom became a large part of the Japanese diet. Hon Shimeji mushrooms are particularly prized thanks to their rich flavor. A Japanese saying goes, “matsutake for fragrance, shimeji for flavor”.
Hon Shimeji mushrooms are found growing on the ground in pine forests in in Japan, usually covering the roots of the Japanese red pine and konara oak trees. Hon Shimeji mushrooms are mostly found in the Tohoku region, such as in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures. They may also be found in China and Korea, as well as in forests in Sweden and Norway. In Japan, Hon Shimeji mushrooms are considered rare – they have become increasingly difficult to find since the mid-20th century, largely due to changes in forestry and the mushroom’s natural habitat. Since the 1990s, several large agriculture companies have managed to cultivate Hon Shimeji mushrooms, which are notoriously difficult to grow as they have specific environmental needs. But yields remain relatively low - with just 40 tonnes of Hon Shimejis being sold per year. Although the cultivated Hon Shimeji mushroom is becoming more common, wild Hon Shimeji mushrooms are still considered to be tastier, and the Hon Shimeji remains an exclusive delicacy in Japan.