New Zealand has a small specialty-mushroom industry that has developed since the mid-1980s. Countries in Asia and mainland Europe have long traditions of eating a variety of fungi, but New Zealand does not. Few fungi were eaten by Māori, usually only when other food was scarce. The first Europeans who settled in New Zealand were mainly from Great Britain, and simply gathered wild field mushrooms in season.
In the early 2000s, New Zealanders were increasingly exposed to a range of edible fungi, brought in by new Asian immigrants, or eaten in international cuisines.
Wood ear fungus
The first commercial sale of edible fungi in New Zealand was in the 1870s, when Taranaki merchant Chew Chong sent bags of dried wood-ear fungus (Auricularia cornea) to his homeland, China. The fungus was in demand for the crunchy, chewy texture it added to food.
Wood ear fungus grows naturally on dead trees in lowland forest. Tonnes were harvested as settlers cleared forest for farming, and exports to China continued until the 1950s. In the 2000s, the fungus is now mostly imported to New Zealand from China, in dry form. Taiwanese growers had started cultivating a closely related fungus on sawdust blocks in the 1960s, and it became uneconomic to harvest it in the wild. A small quantity is now grown in New Zealand for the domestic market.
Wood ear fungus has a very mild flavour and is added to soups, stir-fries and stews for its chewy texture and visual appeal. The dried fungus is soaked in warm water for 20–30 minutes until soft, then cut into strips and lightly cooked.
In New Zealand, shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms are cultivated on specially prepared bags of sterilised sawdust and bran. The first shiitake farm started in Auckland in 1985. It was a large-scale operation, exporting up to 7 tonnes of fresh mushrooms a week to Asian markets, but failed two years later when its parent company collapsed. Since then a few smaller shiitake farms have started up, supplying local restaurants and supermarkets. Fresh shiitake have a meaty texture, and are used in stir-fries and soups. Shiitake is not found naturally in New Zealand, but a closely related edible species, Lentinula novaezelandiae, sometimes grows on fallen logs in native forest.
Oyster and phoenix mushrooms
Cultivation of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and phoenix mushrooms (P. pulmonarius) began in New Zealand in 1994. Previously, quarantine restrictions prevented people from importing spawn. Oyster mushrooms are raised on bags of pasteurised straw, and phoenix mushrooms on sawdust blocks. Although these large fan-shaped fungi are relatively easy to grow, production levels are low, as few people in New Zealand know how to cook them. They are mild-tasting, and readily absorb other flavours.
Enokitake and white jelly fungus
In the early 2000s, small quantities of enokitake (Flammulina velutipes) and white jelly fungus (Tremella fuciformis) were cultivated, mainly for Asian consumers. Both species can be grown on sawdust blocks. The white jelly fungus must be grown with a companion fungus, which degrades sawdust chemicals into forms that it can absorb. Enokitake mushrooms are added to Japanese soups; jelly fungus is often eaten as a syrupy dessert.