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Matsutake-zake: The joys of warm sake infused with cinnamon-flavored Fall mushrooms

A wooden tray with a carafe of hot sake, two matsutake mushrooms, a bottle of sake and a shallow red hirahai.

File this away for next year: the best sake for matsutake-zake just might be a good, earthy, well-made honjozo.

November 2021, I had a surplus of fresh matsutake mushrooms. Eager to reach some conclusions, I compared about a dozen different styles of matsutake-enriched sake this year and even asked shop patrons for their feedback. The gently nutty, appley, white mushroom and brown rice notes of honjozo were the perfect foil for spicy matsutake slices, whose gentle fragrance steeps into the warming sake. Heated together to ~135F and served in ochoko, the two flavors joined perfectly together--- a concert of late autumn flavors. 

The first time I made matsutake-zake was in 2018 during a bumper crop. I quickly went from having no idea what these fabled mushrooms taste like, to being completely immersed in their powerful fragrance and flavor for months. Matsutake-gohan, grilled with sudachi citrus, Jeremy Fox’s matsutake and squash, Fall mushroom nabe, and matsutake-zake from the Shunji cookbook...Of all the recipes I tried that year, I enjoyed matsutake-zake the least. The bottle I chose (and I can’t remember it now) tasted alcoholic and acrid when heated, the mushroom’s flavor lying flat on a bitter, hollow backdrop. I could tell it was the wrong sake but I had no idea what the right one would be, and the internet was no help for this somewhat obscure recipe which only called for sake and mushrooms. Of course I realize now: this is like a recipe calling for wine without even specifying red or white, much less the type.

A forest floor with some matsutake coming in!

So after a poor showing in 2019 and 2020, being very busy in 2019 and unlucky in 2020, I had a successful foray in Gifford Pinchot November 2021. I came home with about 6 pounds of beautiful, giant, aromatic mushrooms, giddy with excitement. Thinking back to my first haul in 2018, I cleaned each one lovingly and tenderly that night, wrapping them in paper towels and putting them in the fridge. Most of all, I couldn’t wait to revisit matsutake-zake.

Three weeks earlier, I had opened a business: Portland’s first sake shop. From clueless in 2018 to expert in 2021, I felt equipped and excited to finally tackle this recipe. Research revealed nothing and (young) Japanese friends had no idea either, so I decided to use the store’s resources to test a wide range of sake for pairing. I’d share my experiments with guests and hopefully reach some conclusions: optimal sake style/brand, and optimal temperature, for matsutake-zake.

I tried a number of good options: hiyaoroshi, Fall seasonal sake; junmai, simple and savory pure rice sake; yamahai, gamey and complex; kimoto, creamy and soft; junmai nama, tart and umami; even a junmai ginjo known for its nutty and dried fruit flavors. I tried gently warm temperatures at ~105F to hot temperatures at 150F. I was looking for an interplay between the spicy, mushroomy, cinnamon flavors of matsutake and the savory, nutty, earthy flavors of sake, with a smooth mouthfeel and without the harshness of alcohol or acidity. The ideal match, I felt, would be warm and comforting, washing over me like Autumn in a cup. 

A big beautiful Matsutake!

Guests that evening were invited to add fresh matsutake slices to their carafe for free, provided they gave me their feedback and thoughts. By the end of the night we had one clear winner and two outliers, suited to those with more unique tastes. The winner was a nama honjozo from Akita prefecture, Akitabare Shunsetsu “Spring Snow.” As a namazake (“nama”) this sake is unpasteurized and has been aging gently under refrigeration since its bottling in May. The once-bright and herbaceous flavors have mellowed, leaving soft tones of cashew nuts and chamomile tea. As a honjozo, which means a small amount of alcohol was added prior to diluting, the sake has a lighter body, shorter finish, and lower acidity. The alcohol is moderate at about 15%, so it isn’t overwhelming when heated. At 110F, the matsutake-zake is soft and comforting, gently warming, a little sweet and spicy with fuller body than room temperature. This is the perfect temperature for enjoying indoors. At 135F, it’s a good temperature for enjoying outdoors in the cold: the warmth penetrates to your core and isn’t harsh. At this temperature you perceive the sake as dry and bracing, but warming spice and nutty notes persist, making it tea-like. Either way, it’s really wonderful. And I think that if you can’t find this specific honjozo, most savory honjozo would be a good substitute.  I’m not so sure about a tanrei karakuchi, “dry” or “extra dry” honjozo-- which might not compliment the sweetness of the mushroom as well.

The runner-ups? Well, a few folks were fond of Terada Honke Junmai Nama, which is a wild and intense sake with powerful flavors of goat caramel, spice, and mushroom. It stood up to the matsutake slices and played alongside them in a chorus, while the Akitabare was more of a soft background, letting the matsutake shine. Another favorite was Masumi Hiyaoroshi, which is a seasonal Fall release. However, in my opinion it was a little too fruit-driven to properly compliment the matsutake. 

Warm sake is such a wonderful way to warm up from a chilly day wandering around the forest, and it’s even better with a few slices of freshly foraged matsutake. Sitting down with these flavors, you can really appreciate why Japanese people so deeply appreciate matsutake as a symbol of Fall. Next time you’re inundated with a bumper crop of matsutake, pick up a bottle of honjozo and give this a try. I’d love to know what you think!

Recipe

  • 1 fresh matsutake-- low grade is fine (IE, large and open caps), cleaned well and sliced very thin-- benriner is ideal. ~20g/serving.
  • For garnish, 1 higher grade matsutake (IE, small and closed caps), cleaned, sliced very thin, one for each cup to float (optional)
  • ~1/4 bottle per person of a good quality honjozo or if you specifically don't like honjozo, a simple junmai. See below for recommended bottles.

In a heat resistant carafe or vessel, add approximately 20g of matsutake slices to every 1 go of sake (180ml, 1 one-cup, or 1/4 of a standard bottle). Use your preferred kanzake method to warm your sake to approximately 120F-- do NOT bring it to a simmer or a boil. Many styles of sake that are warmed too high will not recover their flavor balance when cooled again, so it's important to not heat it too much.

Let the sake sit at 120F for at least 5 minutes to infuse the flavor of the mushroom and soften it. If you know this particular sake well and your preferred temperature, bring it to that temperature to serve. Otherwise I recommend 110F when serving indoors & for a round and generous flavor, or 130F when serving outdoors & for a bit more bite and heat. 

Enjoy, ideally with roasted chestnuts and a nice spread of savory autumn snacks, and don't throw away those mushroom slices! If you don't want to eat them as you drink your matsutake-zake, throw them in with a batch of rice for delicious matsutake gohan.

Recommended bottles

Akitabare Shunsetsu "Spring Snow" - $25 (seasonally available)

Takatenjin "Sword of the Sun" Honjozo - $29

Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu - $22

Not a fan of Honjozo? Here are some good junmai with mild flavor:

Suigei Drunken Whale - $30

Akishika Junmai Bambi Cup - $9

Shunnoten Junmai Cup - $8

Matsutake-zake for one? Try these one-cups!

Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu One Cup Honjozo - $6 

Joto One Cup Honjozo - $4

For more flavor: Kenbishi Kuromatsu Honjozo - $13