Shiitake mushrooms were grown almost exclusively in Japan until 1982, when a University of Wisconsin microbiologist published a paper outlining how U.S. producers could cultivate the fungi on logs. (Prior to the 1970s, shiitakes were kept out of the country because they were mistaken for a fungus that caused railroad ties to decay.)
Now there are more than 200 commercial shiitake operations nationwide, including the program at Mepkin Abbey.
Of the 250 mushrooms classified as edible, shiitakes stand out for their flavor — typically described as “meaty” — and medicinal properties. Read on for seven more things that make shiitakes special:
1. Shiitakes are native to Asia. The name “shiitake” comes from the Japanese words for the tree on which they thrive (“shii”) and mushroom (“take.”) Shiitakes also are known as Black Forest mushrooms, sawtooth oak mushrooms and hua gu.
2. Shiitakes have appeared in Chinese medical manuals for millennia: They’re traditionally prescribed for ailments including fatigue, poor circulation and premature aging. Nowadays, scientists are investigating shiitakes as a cancer fighter. According to the American Cancer Society, “Studies in animals have found antitumor, cholesterol-lowering, and virus-inhibiting effects in compounds in shiitake mushrooms. However, clinical studies are needed to determine whether these properties can help people.” Preliminary research suggests shiitakes can prolong the lifespan of patients with stomach and colorectal cancers. The mushroom also is credited with enhancing the immune system.
3. According to Philip Miles and Shu-Ting Chang, authors of a major mushroom textbook, shiitake cultivation was jumpstarted by Wu San Kang, a mushroom hunter who lived near Fujian about 1,000 years ago. Wu noticed shiitakes grew on fallen logs, so he experimented with cutting logs to serve as shiitake foundations. The resulting shiitakes were bigger and tastier than the wild shiitakes, but sometimes his cut logs didn’t sprout. Wu was so furious that he beat the unproductive logs, causing shiitakes to “spring up profusely like flowers after several days.” The shocking method is still practiced in parts of China, although most shiitake farmers today grow their mushrooms in sawdust blocks, employing a method developed in the 1980s.
4. Because shiitake mushrooms are so meaty, thick slices are preferable to small dices. But the stems aren’t palatable in any shape: The tough, woodsy stems are best for flavoring stocks.
5. Button mushrooms are still the most widely grown mushroom, but shiitakes lead the specialty category. Until the early 1980s, production was concentrated in Japan, with 82 percent of the world’s shiitakes originating there. But China overtook Japan in 1987, and remains the top shiitake producer, although Brazil has lately emerged as a player in the shiitake market.
6. All mushrooms are apt to become soggy when exposed to moisture. To keep shiitakes fresh and dry, store them in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag. When cleaning shiitakes, a damp paper towel or mushroom brush is a better choice than water.
7. Dried shiitake mushrooms are a traditional addition to miso soup, but shiitakes can be prepared in a variety of ways. The simplest preparation is a basic saute: The New York Times’ Florence Fabricant recommends 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 garlic cloves for 6 ounces of mushrooms.