Shiitake mushrooms, pronounced shee-TAH-kay, range in colors from amber to paper bag-brown. Each mushroom has a wide, umbrella shape with a characteristic curled rim. Their caps, growing up to eight inches in diameter, have a cream-colored interior described as supple-firm. When cooked, shiitakes release a garlic-pine aroma and have a rich, earthy, umami flavor.
Shiitake mushrooms are available year-round.
Shiitake mushrooms are scientifically classified as Lentinula edodes. In Japan, there are two general types of Shiitake mushroom: donko, the more round with a thick flesh and koshin, with a thinner flesh and an open cap. Donko Shiitake mushrooms are prized for their greater medicinal value because the cap is only partially open and retains more of the spores. Shiitake mushrooms are the second most commonly consumed mushrooms in the world after the button mushroom.
In addition to their culinary uses, Shiitake mushrooms have long been used for medicinal purposes in both raw and dried form. They are rich in vitamins and minerals with potently high levels of vitamin B2, B12 and vitamin D. Shiitakes are a source of the compound Lentinan, which is being evaluated as an anti-cancer drug.
Shiitake mushrooms should be cooked prior to eating. Although Shiitake mushrooms are a cultivated variety, their flavor and texture lends well to being a substitute in recipes calling for "wild mushrooms." Pair Shiitake with Asian mustard greens, eggplant, rice, noodles, garlic, soy and chile. The Asian mushroom can be sautéed, roasted or skewered and grilled.
It is said that around 200 AD, the 14th emperor of Japan, Emperor Chuai, was given Shiitake mushrooms by the Kyusuyu, the original aboriginals of Japan. In China, Shiitake mushrooms are called shaingug or hsiang ku, which means “fragrant mushroom.”