Have you ever wondered why Shiitake mushrooms are so much more popular in East Asian cultures compared to Western ones? Or maybe you want to know if there are any benefits, either nutritional or medicinal, to eating them?
Here we will discuss these questions and more! Keep reading to learn more about the wonderful world of Shiitake mushrooms.
What is Shiitake?
Shiitake mushrooms are edible fungi native to East Asia, mainly Japan and China. It is commonly used for its delicious taste as well as its medicinal properties.
Why This Name?
The name ‘Shiitake’ can be broken down into two distinct parts.
‘Shii’ (椎) means ‘Castanopsis cuspidata’ (aka Japanese chinquapin). The dead logs of this tree are often used to cultivate Shiitake in Japan. Meanwhile, ‘take’ (茸) simply means ‘mushroom’.
In Chinese, the word for it is ‘xiānggū’.
The scientific name of this fungus is Lentinula Edodes, where ‘edodes’ is Latin for ‘edible’.
Other names for Shiitake include:
- Sawtooth oak mushroom
- Black forest mushroom
- Black mushroom
- Golden oak mushroom
- Oakwood mushroom
What Does it Look Like?
Look for the umbrella-shaped caps that are tan to dark brown when you try to identify Shiitake in the wild or the grocery store. On the underside of the cap, there will be cream-coloured gills.
Besides the cap, these fungi have skinny stems that match the colour of the gills. Despite their skinniness, the stems are tougher than other common mushrooms like button or portobello.
Where Does it Live?
Although these mushrooms are mostly cultivated nowadays, you may want to know where to find them in nature.
If you want to forage in the wild for Shiitake mushrooms, you should start by going to East Asia. Specifically, they are most commonly found in warm and moist climates of China and Japan.
Ensure you start your hunt in either summer or autumn. These two seasons are when these fungi are usually harvested.
Finally, look in deciduous forests as Shiitake love to grow in groups on fallen logs of this tree type.
Like many things, Shiitake mushrooms can be high or low quality.
The highest quality type group is called donko in Japanese and dōnggū in Chinese. This translates to 'winter mushroom' as they are usually harvested in late winter and spring.
This category is further divided into smaller groups. For example, tenpaku donko is known as the king of quality among these fungi. This one is known for its distinct cracked white cap with splotches of dark brown.
Another one is called chabana donko (huāgū in Chinese). The name means ‘flower mushroom’ because of the flower-like cracking pattern on its cap. They differ from tenpaku donko in that they are more tan.
Outside of the highest quality Shiitake, there are other types, including koshin. Koshin is the one harvested in the fall after the cap has opened. You can identify these by their wide and flat caps. As well, they have the strongest fragrance out of all the types.
Shiitake has been harvested to be used as food and medicine for centuries. Due to this, it has a long history, both traditionally and scientifically.
The Rise of Cultivation
After centuries of harvesting these fungi, the first cultivation records occurred in China in 1209 during the Song dynasty. The Records of Longquan County, compiled by He Zhan, contains these records.
Centuries later, Satō Chūryō, a Japanese horticulturist, adapted this record into a book in 1796.
These records eventually led to the primary type of cultivation in Japan called the soak and strike method. In this method, tree logs are inoculated with collected spores, soaked in water, then struck with a hammer.
Traditional cultivation methods like this were only viable in certain places like Japan. That's why Shiitake was so hard to find in other places until 1982. After 1982, people found that these fungi could be grown on hardwood sawdust substrate. This discovery caused the commercial Shiitake production to increase, and it became more widely available around the world.
Shiitake has long held prominence in Japanese and Chinese culture.
For example, Chinese tapestries and manuscripts depict deities holding various medicinal mushrooms, including Shiitake.
Overall, these fungi have two main uses in East Asian culture: food and medicine.
For food, these fungi had a variety of uses due to their nutritional value and tastiness. In Japan, they were often used in miso soup, and steamed or simmered dishes. In China, this mushroom was often sautéed in vegetarian dishes.
For medicine, Shiitake was known as the powerhouse of healing. It was known to promote youthfulness and virility in those who consumed it.
Scientific Name Debate
Shiitake was first described scientifically as Agaricus Edodes by Miles Joseph Berkeley in 1877. Berkeley was one of the founders of the science of plant pathology and created the taxonomy for about 6000 fungi species.
From 1877 to 1975, this mushroom went through about 11 different name changes. What an identity crisis that must have been!
Finally in 1976, David Pegler, a British mycologist, moved this mushroom into the Lentinula genus, which is why it is currently called Lentinula Edodes.
Plenty of scientific research has gone into Shiitake. Mainly, scientists have looked into how these mushrooms can help with your health.
Your immune system is what helps you fight off illnesses. It’s no wonder that lots of research has gone into ways to support this system. Even mushrooms, like Shiitake, are starting to be studied.
For example, a 2015 study looked at whether the consumption of whole, dried Shiitake mushrooms could improve human immune function. The participants included young healthy adults who consumed either 5 or 10g of the fungi daily for 4 weeks. The results showed that immunity was improved through increased cell production and both the activation and increase of secretory immunoglobulin A (antibodies).
Cardiovascular disease is a common problem, but Shiitake mushrooms may be able to help prevent it.
A 2018 study tested the anti-oxidative and anti-atherosclerotic (fatty deposits on artery walls) potential in vitro (lab setting without any living subjects) of different compounds in Shiitake. The researchers found that the food bio-components of the fungi gave it an anti-atherosclerotic ability.
Shiitake has also been studied to see if it will help fight or prevent cancer.
A 2008 study tested the immunomodulatory properties of Shiitake water extract (mycelial and fruit body) on breast cancer cells. The results showed that the mycelial extract caused suppression of cancer cell reproduction while not significantly affecting the normal cells. Both mycelial and fruit body extract enhanced the production of thymocytes.
Another study in 2013 looked at the anti-tumour activity of the mushroom’s water extract. They concluded that the extract inhibited the reproduction of certain tumour cell types.
A surprising research area is Shiitake’s effect on oral health.
For example, a 2016 study gathered information from various studies that tested different forms of Shiitake on oral diseases and general oral health. This review found that this mushroom shows the most promise for preventing cavities. Other potential effects include reducing plaque build-up, preventing oral cancer, and decreasing gingivitis.
Shiitake Mushroom Benefits
Shiitake mushroom benefits don’t just include their medicinal value like some medicinal mushrooms. Instead, these fungi are both a delicious meal and a health benefit combined. Pretty useful, right?
Despite being 90% water, Shiitake mushrooms have a ton of nutrients packed into them. The other 10% is approximately 7% carbohydrates, 2% protein, and less than 1% fat.
Overall, these fungi are high in Vitamin B, potassium, and iron. They also contain other helpful dietary nutrients at lower levels.
For a further breakdown of Shiitake mushroom nutrients, the US Department of Agriculture has a neat chart you can look at here.
The most well-researched Shiitake mushroom health benefit is its power to support your immune system. Not only do these fungi assist you in fighting off any illnesses you’ve caught, but they also help fortify your immune system against further attacks.
Think of it as an extra mushroom-y security assistant for your body.
As well, these mushrooms have antioxidant properties for combating stress-related damage to your body.
As said in the ‘Scientific Research’ section above, there are other potential benefits for more serious illnesses, like cancer and heart disease. These all need more research to confirm the effects, but the current studies’ results look promising!
Shiitake supplements can come in a variety of forms including tinctures, powders, and capsules.
Alcohol-based tinctures are great if you want the effects fast as it is absorbed quickly by your body. This format can be added to drinks, like your morning coffee or tea.
Meanwhile, powders are great to add to both drinks and food recipes. Add some to your smoothie or your stir fry.
Although you can’t add capsules to anything, you can keep them with your other daily vitamins. This will allow you to easily integrate them into your routine.
Consuming Shiitake mushrooms is generally safe, but there are some considerations to take into account.
The biggest potential side effect of consuming these fungi is a skin condition called shiitake dermatitis. This condition presents itself as scratch-like marks on the skin. It is most common after consuming raw mushrooms but can happen with undercooked ones too. With or without treatment, the rash will usually clear up in about three weeks.
Other potential side effects include digestive problems and allergic reactions.
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And there you have it! Now you have all the information you could ever want about the tasty and helpful Shiitake mushroom. Want to try out some mushroom-y products? Check out our line of Shiitake products today!