Mushrooms are soil magicians that govern our ecosystems, the grand molecular disassemblers of nature. One such mushroom, shiitake, boasts magical alchemic properties that have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for generations.
What is Shiitake Mushroom?
Shiitake mushroom, or Lentinula edodes, is one of the most widely cultivated edible mushrooms in the world, second only to the button. Shiitake is a rare superfood that contains seven of the nine essential amino acids. The mushroom is native to Japan, China, the Korean peninsula, and other mountainous regions of East Asia. It can be identified for its umbrella shaped brown cap with decurrent, somewhat ragged gills. Shiitake grows on dead or dying hardwood trees and prefers to inhabit shaded forests where cold water is nearby.
The prefix for shiitake comes from the Japanese chestnut tree called shii, with the suffix take translating to mushroom. Its Latin name Lentinula edodes is broken down into three parts, with lent meaning supple, inus meaning resembling and edodes meaning edible. Interestingly, in 1980, a debate among taxonomists allowed for its change from Lentinus edodes to Lentinula edodes. Shiitake is also referred to as Forest mushroom, Shaingugu, Dong Gu, Hua Gu, Qua Gu, Xiānggū, Pyogo, Lentin des Chênes, Champignon parfumé, Chinese Black, Golden Oak mushroom, Japanese mushroom, Snake butter, and Pasania fungus.
Shiitake has long been a favorite in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. It was regarded as an elixir of life in Chinese historical writings, whereas in ancient Japan, the mushroom was so valued, that wars were fought over it, with the conquering army capturing Shiitake logs as their prize.
Chinese medicinal use of shiitake dates back as far as 100 AD. However, its healing properties were officially documented in the TCM compendium, “Ri Youg Ben Cao”, in 1593. It was traditionally used to strengthen the immune system, dispel hunger, prevent signs of aging, and enliven the blood. In TCM, it specifically speaks to the Spleen, Stomach and Lung meridians by tonifying Qi and Wei Qi, nourishing Blood, and drying Damp.
Shiitake mushroom cultivation began in the 12th century in the mountains of central China by a man called Wu San-Kwung, the pioneer of cultivated shiitake. According to legend:
“…Kwung was testing his axe on a log that had shiitake growing on it. He returned some days later to discover that more shiitake had grown exactly where the log had been chopped by his axe. Kwung continued to successfully experiment…[but]…in his quest to perfect his method of cultivation, he became frustrated with one particular log that wouldn’t fruit. After a long, hard, rainy day, Kwung vented his frustration by beating and flinging the log around. Upon his return, he discovered that the log he had beaten so vigorously was completely covered in mushrooms. Kwung had inadvertently discovered the ‘soak and beat’ method of mushroom cultivation which is still used today” (Indigo Herbs, 2019).
Kwung’s contribution to shiitake cultivation is commemorated in a temple situated in Qingyuan, where festivals in his name are still celebrated today throughout Zhe-jiang Province.
In Japanese archives, historical documents describe how Chuai, the bellicose 14th emperor of Japan and his royal court, used shiitake mushrooms as an aphrodisiac. They were originally given to Chuai by Kumaso tribe members of Kyushu Island, of whom he was trying to conquer.
Commonly Reported Benefits & Effects of Shiitake
Shiitake mushrooms are rich in phytonutrients like vitamin D and L-ergothioneine, which prevent cellular breakdown and stimulate collagen. In addition, shiitake contains high amounts of kojic acid, which can help lighten areas of hyperpigmentation and fade dark spots and scars (Rahman & Choudhury, 2013). Skincare companies are increasingly adding active ingredients of shiitake extracts because it can help soothe irritated skin and reduce signs of aging (Hyde et al, 2010).
One of shiitake’s main bioactive compounds, eritadenine, has been repeatedly shown to help lower cholesterol by inhibiting its absorption in the bloodstream (Jong & Birmingham, 1993). It also reduces blood lipid levels, thus preventing cardiovascular disease (Wasser, 2005). In addition, by isolating sterols, scientists have found that shiitake helps block cholesterol absorption in the gut, while the mushroom’s beta glucans prevent substances from binding to the linings of blood vessels. Shiitake has also been found to treat and prevent thrombosis and has been shown to decrease platelet aggregation (Hyun et al, 2006).
Cancer Prevention and Treatment
Lentinan, a water-soluble polysaccharide in shiitake mushrooms, has been found to activate and increase the production of killer and helper T cells (Chihara, 1978), through its antitumor (Wasser, 2005) and immunostimulating activities (Xu et al, 2012). Clinical trials were done on patients with advanced cancer, who in conjunction with chemotherapy, were given extracts of lentinan from shiitake. The patients exhibited increased survival rate, reduced chemotherapy side effects and improved quality of life (Powell, 2010). Shiitake is so highly regarded that it has been approved as an anticancer drug in Japan.
Shiitake has an innate ability to either up-regulate or down-regulate the immune system (Wasser, 2005). In particular, lentinan activates macrophage T-lymphocytes and other immune effector cells. It supports defense against bacteria such as antibiotic resistant strains by mobilizing humoral immunity (Vetvicka, 2014) and viruses such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis by boosting production of interferon (Takehara et al, 1979). JLS, a new compound recently derived from the mycelium, has shown to block the release of herpes simplex virus type 1 (Sarkar et al, 1993). Interestingly, a research study done by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, showed increased immunity in participants who simply ate cooked shiitake mushrooms every day for 4 weeks. Participants exhibited higher functioning gamma delta T-cells and reductions in inflammatory proteins.
Some have reported a rare reaction to eating raw shiitake called Shiitake Dermatitis, however this is not a life threatening condition. If mushroom allergies are present, mushrooms can cause rash, swelling or breathing difficulties. It is always safest to consult your healthcare practitioner before consuming.
Common Uses of Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake Mushrooms Extract
Shiitake’s most valid method of extraction is through a single hot-water extraction that retains high levels of beta-glucans.
Shiitake Mushroom Powder Supplement
A finely-milled extracted powdered formula can dissolve into almost any liquids, which is a wonderful addition to smoothies, juices, and teas. You can also experiment with adding it to savory dishes such as soups, dips, and dressings, or sprinkle it over your meals.
Shiitake Mushroom Soup
In China and Japan, Shiitake is medicinally and culinarily eaten fresh or dried. Dried shiitake mushrooms are used to add an intense umami flavor and fragrance to soups. Traditional Japanese soup recipes call for shiitake in miso broth complemented with chopped green onions. Chinese Hot and Sour Soup was traditionally enjoyed in China.
Where to Buy Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake can be found fresh or dried in gourmet grocery stores throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. If you are unable to locate locally, the online market is filled with grow kits and packaged mushrooms. The Alchemist’s Kitchen sells a range of shiitake infused with other mushrooms in powdered and extract formulas. Check out our full list of mushroom products here.
How to cook Shiitake Mushrooms?
Many chefs prefer to use dried shiitake for a more mushroom concentrated flavor profile in meals such as soups. Fresh mushrooms have a meaty flavor that can compliment almost any dish such as sautéed in stir fries, quiches, pasta sauces and pâtés, or baked or grilled with a baste of tamari and sesame oil.
How to grow Shiitake mushrooms?
If it is your first time growing Shiitake, it would be smart to consider purchasing a grow kit, where logs are inoculated with actively growing fungus. They are readily available online and offer a convenient and easy option for beginners.
What color is Shiitake mushrooms?
Initially fruiting, the cap is dark brown and then becomes a light amber brown color upon maturity.
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