Fun with Fungus

Asian cooks are equally fond of fungi. Anyone who likes Chinese food has noticed that mushrooms appear on restaurant menus as a vegetable dish and are used to enhance other dishes. The shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is an edible mushroom native to East Asia, and is largely produced in China, Japan and South Korea. Though it is generally known in the English-speaking world by its Japanese name, shiitake, is native to China, and has been cultivated in the country for over 1000 years.

In Chinese, it is called xiānggū (香菇, lit. "fragrant mushroom" or "delicious mushroom"). Two Chinese variant names for high grades of shiitake are dōnggū (Chinese: 冬菇, "winter mushroom") and huāgū (花菇, "flower mushroom," which has a flower-like cracking pattern on the mushroom's upper surface); both are produced at colder temperatures. Other names by which the mushroom is known in English include Chinese black mushroom and black forest mushroom.

Shiitake accounts for 10% of world production of cultivated mushrooms. They are often dried and sold as preserved food in packages. These must be rehydrated by soaking in water before using. Many people prefer dried shiitake to fresh, considering that the sun-drying process draws out the superior umami flavour from the dried mushrooms by breaking down proteins into amino acids. The stems of shiitake are rarely used primarily because the stems are harder and take longer to cook than the soft fleshy caps.

Today, shiitake mushrooms have become popular in many other countries as well. Russia produces and also consumes large amounts of them, mostly sold pickled; and the shiitake is slowly making its way into western cuisine as well.

Shiitake mushrooms have been researched for their medicinal benefits, most notably their anti-tumor properties in laboratory mice. These studies, the earliest dating back to 1969, have also identified the polysaccharide lentinan, a (1-3) β-D-glucan, as the active compound responsible for the anti-tumor effects.

Extracts from shiitake mushrooms have also been researched for many other immunological benefits, ranging from anti-viral properties to possible treatments for severe allergies, as well as arthritis. Lenthionine, a key flavor compound of shiitake, also inhibits platelet aggregation, so it is a promising treatment for thrombosis.