Shiitake mushrooms surely rank among the world’s most delicious culinary delicacies.
Their meaty, somewhat exotic flavor is deeper and far more complex than that of the more common plain white button mushrooms, and their unique woodsy flavor combined with their ease of cooking and versatility make them a very popular choice for the discerning gastrophile.
Shiitakes are the second most cultivated mushrooms in the world and are today more widely available than ever before, particularly in the US, both in fresh and dried form.
They’re also among the most studied and effective of all medicinal mushrooms.
Shiitakes are endemic to eastern Asia, including China, Korea and Japan and are found primarily growing on dead branches that have fallen to the ground.
The word shiitake is Japanese in origin and is derived from the the shii tree, or Japanese oak Castanopsis cuspidata, on which these fungi grow naturally in the wild. The second syllable of the word, ‘take,’ is Japanese for mushroom.
This mushroom is famous for its use as both a food and medicine in eastern Asia for thousands of years, and it is estimated that its cultivation in these regions first began as far back as the second century AD during the reign of Japan’s Emporor Chuai.
The original method of cultivation was to chop down shii trees and place the chopped logs adjacent to others where shiitakes were already growing naturally. The spores from the existing fungi would inoculate the cut logs, eventually producing a flush of mushrooms
Present Day Cultivation
Although shiitakes are not indigenous to the US and so are not found growing in the wild, they are now widely cultivated here.
Shiitakes require a cellulose-rich substrate on which to grow, and for the purposes of mass production they’re most commonly grown indoors in controlled conditions by inoculating spores into compressed blocks of various fibrous substrates, including things like bagasse, hardwood sawdust, or softwood sawdust combined with rice and/or wheat bran.
They can also be grown outdoors on hardwood logs, particularly oak, and many consider mushrooms grown this way to have superior taste as compared to those grown indoors on compressed substrate materials.
There are a few shiitake farms that grow large quantities of fungi outdoors on hardwood logs. And for those who are interested in cultivating their own fungi there are also companies that sell pre-inoculated logs, and/or spawn plugs and other supplies for inoculating one’s own logs.
Depending on the substrate on which they’re grown, shiitakes contain varying amounts of a variety of different minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron, phosphorus and zinc.
They’re also good sources of ergosterol, a provitamin that’s a precursor which is converted to vitamin D2.
Shiitakes have been studied extensively for their therapeutic health benefits, and there’s a great deal of evidence demonstrating their beneficial effects, which include anti-tumor, anti-viral and anti-microbial properties, their immune-regulating effects, and liver protective qualities.
The polysaccharides lentinula edodes mycelium extract, or LEM, and lentinan are two of the most promising and effective healing substances that have been isolated from shiitake mushrooms and which have been widely studied by science for their healing properties.
There are many published studies on these isolates, both of which show much promise in the treatment of cancer and other chronic diseases such as AIDS, HIV and even candidaisis, as well as to mitigate the damaging effects of conventional cancer treatments including radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientific studies show that lentinan can reduce the growth of some cancer cells and also induces the death of cancer cells, demonstrating that it may well be effective in cancer prevention.
Other experiments with lentinan have demonstrated that it promotes increased activity of immune cells such as T-cells, monocytes, cytokines, and tumor necrosis factor. This enhanced immune response was shown to hamper the proliferation of some types of bacteria and viruses, including staphylococcus aureus and vesicular stomatitis virus.
Lentinan is considered to be so effective for improving immune function that it is routinely used by conventional doctors in Japan as an adjunct treatment for cancer patients.
Shiitakes clearly are not only tremendously beneficial for our health, but they’re also some of the tastiest medicinal mushrooms around! If you haven’t already, you may wish to seek them out at your local market and give them a try at your next meal.
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