(lat. Lentinus Edodes)
When we hear the word shiitake, we all somehow know that it’s related to our health and well-being. And that’s true, while shiitake is a Japanese word used for one of the few truly unique superfood in form of a mushroom, and its great secret lies in an ability to feed itself with various nutrients from a bark of a shii tree (Castanopsis cuspidata) rather than a soil, and because of that the original taste of these mushrooms cannot be compared to any other food item found on our beautiful planet.
Shiitake mushrooms grow naturally throughout Southeast Asia, where they have been known as a food and powerful medicine for thousands of years, and only recently they became common in kitchens in other parts of the world as well. In China they are known as Shing-ku mushrooms and represent a symbol of longevity. China was the first country to cultivate these miraculous fungi since 10th Century, when a man named Wu San Kwung discovered a very simple and basic technique of shiitake cultivation. How much the Chinese people admired (and they still admire) this little mushroom proves the fact that there are thousands of years old shiitake-growing villages and each of them have temple to honor this oddly looking creation of mother nature. However, in the rest of the world it is solely known by a name that Japanese people gave to it (actually, in a common language it is also called Japanese forest mushroom), and the reason is very simple: from the moment Japanese people were introduced to this flavorful culinary treat and its health-promoting properties, they fell in love with it, improved the method of its cultivation and until today they are the world leading country in its production.
Shiitake mushrooms have no roots, no leaves and they do not blossom, and like all other fungi, they are reproduced by spores. Depending on numerous conditions where and when they grow, they are classified like white flower mushrooms (bakfah-gu), winter mushrooms (dong-gu), and fragrant mushrooms (heong-gu). Winter mushrooms are the best, as they are meatier, dense and more flavorful than other two shiitake mushrooms types.
Nevertheless, all three types of shiitake mushrooms have outstanding health benefits and high nutritious value. They are rich in dietary fibers, antioxidants, carbohydrates and proteins, making them perfect choice for the vegetarian and vegan diet. They are a good source of many vitamins, especially B1 (thiamine), B2 (ribo-flavin), B12 (niacin), provitamin D2, and pantothenic acid. Shiitake are also an outstanding source of iron and other valuable minerals like selenium, zinc, manganese, etc.
And since this tiny mushroom has all of these ingredients perfectly packed together, modern scientists also calls it a medicinal mushroom, revealing its many health improving and therapeutic possibilities, which oriental medicine knew for thousands of years, where it had very important curative role. Chinese and Japanese health practitioners treated their patients with dried shiitake extract for a high range of illnesses. Asian herbalists described shiitake in their first medicinal books, and one of it was written by Wu-Rui of the Ming Dynasty, stating that: “shii-take accelerates vital energy, wards off hunger, cures colds, and defeats body fluid energy.”
Recent scientific researches proved that shiitake mushroom contains wide spectrum of immune-stimulating phytochemicals, and isolated few compounds for which they now have evidence that shiitake mushrooms have anticarcinogenic and antitumor effects. Scientist Chihara isolated one polysaccharide called lentinan as the most powerful compound from the shiitake mushroom, and found out that it almost completely regress the solid type of tumors and it is able to increase host resistance against various kinds of cancer and other dangerous infectious diseases. There are also numerous studies proving that shiitake mushroom is able to lower blood serum cholesterol, lower the blood pressure, and as a good fungus this mushroom successfully wins a fight against various bed funguses making damage in human organism, and future studies will for sure found many other antiviral, antibacterial, antiparasitic effects of this miraculous mushroom. And if not, shiitake will still continue to be one of the most eaten mushrooms in the world for it extraordinary exotic taste.
Shiitake in Kitchen
Shiitake mushroom has smoky and earthy rich sent honored by many gourmets as a true delicacy, and by adding them to your dish, you will experience so-called umami flavor effect – an effect found in some other mushrooms and anchovies as well, which enhances, enriches and deepens savory flavor in your dish.
This mushroom can be used fresh, dried, frozen or cooked, but when eating it raw, some people may experience mild allergenic reaction known as shiitake dermatitis, so be careful if you decide to eat it straight from the bark of a tree – start with a small amount and definitely make sure they come from a certified organic grower.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are easy to use by rehydrating them in cold water for an hour – hot water destroys their flavor.
Fresh shiitake mushrooms can be kept in a refrigerator in a paper bag up to ten days, and the stems of fresh shiitake mushrooms are pretty tough and chewy, so they are usually being discarded, but if you are a bit like me, you can chop them in a small pieces, add them at the beginning of the cooking and enjoy them fully.
Since they grow on a tree rather than a soil, these fungi are pretty clean when purchased and gentle cleaning with food brush or a wet cloth is sufficient.
They are very easy to prepare, and the simplest method is to sauté it, but there are no cooking limits when dealing with these great mushrooms. You can cook, bake, fry, grill them, or simply put them raw in your favorite salad to add some proteins.
In order to enhance their flavor and keep all the nutrients in the meal, it is recommendable to cook shiitake from 5 to 10 minutes – this depends on the size of mushrooms and thickness of their flesh.
In Asian countries people also use them as a powdered extract, syrup or a tea, and I’m sure this kinds of shiitake products will become available in other countries as well. No matter how you decide to prepare them in your kitchen, we encourage you to add shiitake into your meals, and this ancient mushroom will thank you by improving your overall health and vitality for sure.