Korea’s most common mushrooms

You can find them in marts around Korea year-round, but fall always gets us thinking of mushrooms. There are dozens and dozens of varieties consumed as meals and medicine in Korea, but today we’ll stick with a rundown of the four most common mushrooms you’ll find in restaurants and markets: pyogo mushrooms, neutari mushrooms, saesongi mushrooms and paengi mushrooms.

(In the photo above, we’ve included a common varietal of neutari—by the numbers, we have: 1. pyogo, 2. neutari, 3. cham-neutari, 4. saesongi, 5. paengi)

Rather listen than read? Get our Local Eats podcast about mushrooms on tbs eFM’s Koreascape here.

 

IMG_5359_표고버섯

 

Pyogo (표고 버섯, shiitake mushrooms)

Pyogo are the second most commonly produced mushroom in the world. Cultivation is said to have begun in China around 1000 A.D. and while it naturally occurs in the wild here in Korea as well, pyogo have been farmed here since at least the Joseon Dynasty era: A 1766 treatise on agriculture (증보산림경제) describes a method for farming pyogo using cut logs, soaking and seeding them, and placing them at an angle to propagate. In fact, farmers who do “자연,” or natural, pyogo farming use pretty much the same methods today. Oak logs, preferred for the best taste and highest yield, are set up beneath pine trees, which provide year-round shade. Mushrooms can be harvested in fall and spring. Indoor commercial production of pyogo using bags of sawdust produces higher yields but a distinctly different flavor profile.

 

Chef’s Notes

Pyogo is often called “밭에서 나는 쇠고기,” meaning “beef of the field” since its texture is reminiscent of beef, and, at the same time, it is said to be just as nutritious as beef. Therefore, it has been often used as a companion for bulgogi and japchae in Korean cuisine.

 

how to eat:

There are many ways to eat pyogo in Korea, but here are the two main ways:

– fresh pyogo: you can sauté, or add to your bulgogi, japchae or any kind of stir fry. You can use the recipe that follows and add it to any of the recommended usages mentioned above.

– dried pyogo: Soak them and use them like fresh mushrooms. Wondering how to soak them? There’s a surprising amount of controversy about this, but in my opinion, the best way is soaking them in cold water in the refrigerator overnight. Many sources will recommend that you soak them in hot water, or even sugar water, using the microwave—but be forewarned that while soaking your dried pyogo in those ways will get them soft pretty quickly, you will not get the earthy, deep, true aroma and flavor of pyogo. You can also make a great vegetable stock by simply adding few pieces of this mushroom to your pot.

– Western cooking applications: sautée as a side dish with meat, use in stocks for soups and stews.

IMG_5367_표고버섯
Immature pyogo on left, mature pyogo on right

how to choose:

Check under the cap of the mushroom—if the gills are slightly opened like a file folder, it is ready to be consumed. If you can’t see the gills and the underside of the cap is closed, it means it is still too young to be picked. On the other hand, if the cap is stretched out flat and you can see the gills are fully opened, it means the mushroom is too old. While not all natural, log-grown mushrooms are marked on the packaging, the farmer we talked to showed us how natural-grown pyogo have thicker stems and caps than sawdust grown mushroom.

recipe:

pyogo mushroom bokkeum

how to store:

Pyogo mushrooms tend to absorb a lot of moisture, so keep them in a dry, cool place. If you plan to consume them within a few days, wrap them with paper towels keep them in the refrigerator. If you are planning to use them over the long term, you can also freeze them. Another way to keep them is drying: When you dry pyogo, place the caps upside down, so the gills can face upward. Dry them in cool, sunny, dry weather.

 

 

IMG_5693_느타리버섯

 

Neutari (느타리 버섯, oyster mushrooms)

If pyogo is Korea’s best-known mushroom, neutari is the quiet champion of shopping baskets and home cooking. There are no neutari festivals, there are fewer photos and books and blogs on neutari, but it’s everywhere and to ignore it would be a disservice. Neutari have grown on fallen poplars and willows in Korean forests since ancient times and today, 80% of neutari production occurs in East Asian countries. There are several varieties of neutari in Korea, but the most common is just plain neutari (Pleurotus ostreatus, meaning ear-shaped oyster in Greek). Another popular variety, cham-neutari (참느타리, Pleurotus spodoleucus) has darker dove-gray caps, stands up taller, like trombones, and has a slightly less earthy fragrance than neutari.

 

cham-neutari
cham-neutari

 

Chef’s Notes

 

how to eat:

Neutari has a milder taste than pyogo and comes at very affordable prices in Korea. It’s great sautéed with other vegetables. Neutari contain a lot of water, so often it is first blanched then sautéed in Korean cuisine.

IMG_5707_느타리버섯
blanched cham-neutari draining and cooling in the sink

 

how to choose:

Choose mushrooms with shiny grey caps and clearly visible gills. Ideally, the cap shouldn’t be smashed.

recipe:

Neutari mushroom sautee

how to store:

Because of the moisture content of this mushroom, it becomes very stringy and tasteless if you freeze and thaw—so don’t freeze them and keep them in refrigerator wrapped in paper towels. Neutari changes colors and starts losing its aroma and flavor very rapidly, so if you need to keep them for more than two days, blanch and then store in the refrigerator.

 

IMG_5691_새송이버섯

 

Saesongi (새송이 버섯, king oyster mushrooms)

This plump, hardy mushroom has undergone enough re-namings and family reclassifications to rival a Korean drama. Originally considered part of the songi (pine mushroom) family, it was reclassified to the neutari family in 1986 (in keeping with its scientific name, Pleurotus eryngii) and christened “big neutari” (큰느타리). Before long, the South Gyeongsang Rural Development Administration decided that it was worthy of its own name and dubbed it the “jinmi mushroom” (진미버섯). Finally, everyone settled on saesongi (new songi) and that’s what has stuck. While saesongi do occur in the wild, they’re rare and the majority are grown in bottles on sawdust and rice bran.

Chef’s Notes

I was born in 1977, and I don’t have any old memories of saesongi mushrooms… I might be wrong, but as far as I can remember, they started showing up in the market regularly maybe even less than 10 years ago. When I think about saesongi mushrooms, no particular flavors come to mind, but instead, I recall their unique and meaty texture. I personally enjoy sautéeing them and serving with grilled meat but there are also many other ways to enjoy them.

how to eat:

One of the most common ways to eat saesongi in Korea is thinly slicing and grilling them. Most Koreans do this when they have BBQ. Or saesongi can be simply sautéed with some salt and pepper and a little vegetable oil. Cutting them in half or into thick cubes and sautéeing can give you more chewy and fun textures. Also, it is often made as jangajji (ganjang-based pickle).

how to choose:

Choose firm and heavy saesongi mushrooms. Avoid saesongi with dry flesh or broken caps, if possible.

recipe:

Saesongi mushroom jangajji (coming soon)

how to store:

Wrap them in a paper towel and keep in the refrigerator. They can be stored longer than other mushrooms but try to consume them as soon as possible. Saesongi can be frozen.

 

IMG_5684_팽이버섯

 

Paengi (팽이 버섯, enoki mushrooms)

Paengi are possibly the strangest looking of the mushrooms you’ll find in the mart. Skinny and pale, there’s something almost underdeveloped-looking about them. “Paengi” means “top” in Korean, referring to the small spinning toy—to be fair, the anemic stalks sold in grocery stores don’t exactly resemble wooden tops, but the wild varietal does. In the wild, paengi are shorter and stouter, with light golden-brown caps. The paengi you see in stores are cultivated indoors with little light. Paengi cultivation hasn’t had a long history in Korea, at least commercially, only starting in the 1980s. Between 1995 and 2009, paengi production in Korea has increased 15 times over, helping it become one of the most popular mushrooms today.

 

NaturalPaengi
L: Korean traditional top (source: tsori.net/1382); R: Paengi mushrooms in the wild (source: Wikipedia Commons)

Chef’s Notes

Paengi is one of the most popular mushrooms in Korea not only because of its generously low price but also because of its interesting texture and mild, buttery flavor. People enjoy adding paengi into a variety of dishes.

how to eat:

Since it has a very gentle and mild flavor, paengi can be added into almost any kind of dish. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Korean people enjoy them adding into bulgogi or doenjang jjigae. For Western cooking, it can simply be added into salads. Or try rolling with bacon and baking in the oven for a simple but delicious party appetizer.

how to choose:

Choose a tightly wrapped package that hasn’t been exposed very long to air. The color should be a bright white, and the stems should be straight. If the bottom of the bunch of mushroom has changed to yellow, it means it is going bad.

how to store:

Paengi goes bad easily, so consume as soon as possible. If you have to keep paengi longer, wrap them with a paper towel and put them in a plastic bag, but do not close it. The mushroom need to breathe. Beware: this mushroom loses freshness quickly!

 

*Please note: This is not a guide for wild mushroom foraging. The same species grown for grocery stores and the wild version can look very different. There are a lot of poisonous look-alikes out there so follow an expert if you head out into the woods!

**We’re really grateful to mushroom farmer Jang Sunjae for setting up a mushroom foraging trip and visit to a pyogo mushroom farm. He also sells fresh, log-grown pyogo and neutari, which you can order here.

 

3 replies on “ Korea’s most common mushrooms ”
  1. Ah very informative this is! Thank you. // My favorite mushroom of those listed is the oyster mushroom. In the US, there is often two sections that are eaten. The top part, or the part you have pictured and is common in Korea, and the leafy, in appearance, bottom part. These might be two species, I am actually not 100 percent sure. Anyway, I really love oyster mushrooms hand-torn apart, tossed lightly in olive oil, liberally salted and peppered, and roasted in a 400 deg (F) oven for 10-15 minutes. They taste absolutely stunning. Although I am sure there is a Korean analogue, there is a dish in Japan called “kimpira” which utilizes vegetable by-product. One of the best versions of this is super easy to make: just take the stems of shiitake mushrooms, brush any dirt off (personally, I never wash my mushrooms in water), then slice them quite thin (1/4″), stir fry in a little sesame oil, add a couple tablespoons of mirin and soy sauce plus a pinch of sugar and reduce (au sec) to nearly dry, garnish with freshly ground black pepper and sesame seeds.

    1. Your mushroom recipe sounds delicious! It sounds very much like Korean beoseot bokkeum (sautéed mushroom). We have a recipe for that up in our recipe section as well. By the way, do you work in the food industry?

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