The magic behind the Shiitake Mushroom

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Deep in the woods, some of the most beautiful and powerful mushrooms grow. The Lentinula edodes, called shiitake, is one of them and is found originally in the woods of Japan. Shiitake grows on dead wood. ‘Shi’ is the name of the specific tree in Japan where the mushroom grows, and ‘take’ means mushroom. It’s history and today’s science tell me there’s something magical about these Japanese wood mushrooms.

History of Medicinal Mushrooms

From the thousands of species of mushrooms, only about 20 types of mushrooms are cultivated for culinary purpose. Shiitake is cultivated for both, it’s culinary and healing qualities. The first to use the shiitake mushrooms for nutrition and healing were the Chinese. It is a Chinese legend, that around 5,000 years ago, Shennong, an ancient deity, gifted the world with natural treasures like medicinal mushrooms, including shiitakes. It lead to the foundation of Chinese medicine based on super foods and acupuncture. In Chinese culture shiitake are a symbol of youthfulness and virility. If you take a look at some Chinese art pieces, tapestries and manuscripts, it is common deities hold several species of mushrooms, including the shiitake.

The Mycelium Network

Although these mushrooms grow wild, the Japanse found a sustainable method to cultivate mushrooms. It’s called the ‘soak and strike’ method. By introducing the mycelia (fungus-like bacterial colony)into the tree log with collected spores and leaving them in a moist environment, they will colonize for a whole year. The logs are cut from a tree and placed horizontally. Once the fungus been implanted, it’s permanently in there and it could produce for about two years. The mycelia don’t need much water. It feeds itself from the sugars of the wood and breaths out the carbon dioxide. Exactly like we humans do. In fact the DNA of mushrooms shows they are more related to the human body than to a plant. Their source of energy is sunlight, the vitamin D. Shiitake are brown because of the same reason we humans get a tan when we are exposed to sunlight. If you buy fresh shiitake mushrooms and expose them upside down, facing the sunlight it will increase their vitamin D.

Mushrooms are said to have knowledge about our planet we don’t even know about. For those who are curious I truly advise you to watch the documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’. In this film, the mycelium network takes us on a journey into the magical earth beneath our feet, where an underground network resides that can heal and save our planet. I am sure it will blow your mind.

Shiitake Magical Health Benefits

Now let me tell you something about their magical health benefits. Shiitake mushroom are rich in fiber, proteins, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants like selenium, manganese, and zinc. Scientific studies have shown that shiitake contain a blood cholesterol–lowering amino acid and lentinan, that can stem or break-down tumors. Shiitake mushrooms are advised to cancer and AIDS patients to boost the body’s immune system. Important to note is that shiitake can be used as an immune-booster and add to treatments, but not as a replacement.

Study shows that consuming shiitake mushrooms daily improves human immunity. These are most of the health benefits you can profit from when consuming shiitake:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • cancer fighting properties 
  • immune system support
  • good source of protein
  • low in calories
  • high in B vitamines (vitamin B12), copper, riboflavin, niacin, B5+B6, selenium, manganese, zinc, folate and vitamin D
  • may lower blood pressure
  • antibacterial and antiviral

Besides all these amazing health benefits I love cooking with shiitake because of their taste. They have an intense earthy flavor. You can either buy them fresh or dried and even powdered. When dried, shiitake has a more smoky taste. Fresh they have a rich buttery flavor and meaty texture. Powdered they are mostly used to add this umami flavor to your dishes. You can sprinkle it like salt to your meat or add it to soups and stews. Shiitake are a bit more expensive than the cremini mushrooms but their rich flavor make them worth the extra costs. Shiitake are wonderful in risotto, soups, stuffings, or just sautéed with garlic and herbs. Soon I will share with you more recipes with shiitake and how to make your own magic mushroom powder.

Sources: accessscience, Journal of the American College of Nutrition

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