Shiitake: the umami-packed Asian fungus that everyone needs to try

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  June 14, 2022

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It is not often that medicine and flavor intersect.

When was the last time you heard the word ‘medicinal’ and imagined something you would put in your soup?

But hey, turns out there is something that sits perfectly at the intersection of taste and medicine; something you would gladly put in your soup and meals; the shiitake mushroom.

Shiitake mushroom is an umami-packed edible fungus native to East Asia. With a rich taste and myriad health benefits, shiitake mushrooms are not only a staple ingredient in cooking but also have medicinal uses in treating diseases like cancer and immune disorders.

In this article, I will cover everything you need to know about this miracle fungus, from its very name to its use in medicine and, of course, all the amazing dishes you can make with it.

What are shiitake mushrooms?

Shiitake is a mushroom variety of edible mushrooms with a cap length of between 1 to 5 inches. They are dark brown, with tough, non-edible stalks that are separated from the cap when cooking.

Although native to east Asian countries like Japan and China, shiitake mushrooms are now grown almost all over the world and have found their place in nearly every cuisine in some way.

They are eaten in both dried and fresh forms. Because shiitake mushrooms have such an intense, umami flavor, they add a unique taste to a bunch of different dishes.

How can you eat shiitake mushrooms?

Generally, dried shiitake mushrooms are soaked in hot water. Once they are softened, they are added to broths, stews, stir-fries etc.

As for the soup, it is added dry and simmered in the liquid.

On the other hand, fresh shiitake mushrooms are either sauteed and eaten as a whole or added to noodles and ramen.

You can also make them into shiitake bacon.

Since shiitake mushrooms are eaten quite commonly, you will find them in your nearest grocery store in both dried and fresh forms.

Just a word of caution, don’t try to eat raw shiitake mushrooms as they can cause shiitake dermatitis.

It is a skin allergic reaction that covers both body and face and can last up to 3 weeks.

What does shiitake mean?

The name for Shiitake mushroom is borrowed from two Japanese words, Shii (椎), which means chinquapin tree, and Take (茸), which, in Japanese, means mushroom.

Together they make the word 椎茸, or shiitake, which means chinquapin tree mushroom.

The name is given to the mushroom because of its characteristic quality of growing on the logs of the chinquapin tree.

There are also other names for this mushroom species like “sawtooth oak mushroom,” “black forest mushroom,” and “black mushroom.”

Still, due to the ease of pronounciation and simplicity, and massive production of the specific variety from Japan, shiitake is the name that got the most popularity.

The word was first cited in English in 1877 and has been used ever since.

Also read: these are the 7 most popular Japanese mushroom types & their delicious recipes

What do shiitake mushrooms taste like?

The taste of shiitake mushrooms is somewhat a mix of savory, meaty, and buttery, known as umami.

Just so you know, the word ‘umami’ is taken from Japanese, which means “the essence of deliciousness.”

The complexity of umami is hard to describe for someone who hasn’t tried it.

It is often classified as the fifth taste along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty; hence, it has its uniqueness that is impossible to replicate.

Umaminess is sensed by our tongue with the help of receptors that specifically respond to nucleotides and glutamate.

And since these compounds are found in just a handful of ingredients, umami is a rare flavor to find naturally in foods.

That’s also why naturally-occurring umami-flavored meats or foods are expensive, with shiitake mushrooms no exception.

Though there’s a good chance you must have experienced the taste several times if you are fond of Japanese cuisine.

The closest thing you can taste to pure umami is soy sauce and MSG, with the latter being umami in a synthesized form.

Origin of shiitake mushroom

The origin of shiitake is in east Asia, without a doubt. As to whether it is China or Japan, that’s quite a debate right there!

I would most certainly associate it with China because the shiitake mushroom is mentioned in Chinese legends that are more than thousands of years old.

Crazy right? Well, prepare for what I’m about to tell you next!

As per Chinese folklore, around 5000 years ago, Shannon, a.k.a “the divine farmer,” bestowed the world with many natural treasures, among which medicinal mushrooms were one.

Since the specific shiitake mushroom was discovered, it has been a part of Chinese manuscripts and artworks, along with other species of mushrooms.

In fact, shiitake mushrooms have been depicted as an aphrodisiac, a medicinal food that promotes sexual wellness, youthfulness, and virility.

Soon after its discovery in the wild regions of China, the mushroom shortly went to Japan, and that was when its production flourished on an industrial scale.

Instead of looking in the wild for mushrooms, the Japanese developed a method that helped them grow the mushrooms at home.

They would simply cut hardwood trees into logs, place them horizontally, and inject the mushroom spores into the logs.

With this practice catching the trends, Japan slowly became the biggest cultivator of shiitake and continues to be one.

As per the recent data, about 83% of the total Shiitake yield comes from Japan worldwide, with China, Singapore, and other countries collectively growing the remaining percentage.

Types of shiitake mushroom

Shiitake mushrooms are divided into five types based on their rarity, quality, overall appearance, and growing conditions.

Below described is everything you need to know about them:

Tenpaku Donko

Tenpaku Donko is the highest quality shiitake mushroom harvested in cold weather.

It is also the rarest among all due to its extremely difficult growing conditions, forming only 1% of the annual shiitake harvest.

In terms of appearance, the mushroom has a thick, white cap with natural, flower-shaped cracks on the surface formed due to low temperature.

The texture is crunchy, with a mellow aroma.

Just like other shiitake mushroom varieties, it is used both fresh and dried.

Chabana Donko

Chabana Donko has the same shape and pattern and is cultivated the same way as tenpaku donko. It also has a thick flesh, with the color being a little warmer than tenpaku.

Chabana donko shiitake mushrooms are as expensive as tenpaku donko and have the same great taste as you would expect from a rarity.

Donko

Donko is perhaps the most commonly used of all the shiitake mushroom varieties. It has a very meaty texture and a pleasant chewiness that really makes it a treat to eat.

It is also packed with extreme umami flavor, making it ideal for many dishes, from stir-fried to boiled ones and anything in between.

The relatively reasonable price makes it accessible for everyone to enjoy. That’s also one of the reasons why it’s the most popular variant of shiitake mushrooms.

Yori

Yori mushrooms have a very thin overall structure compared to the three varieties above. However, it’s still a perfect example of a “small pack, big blast.”

Known for its strong aroma, yori mushroom is quite a staple ingredient in Japanese new year’s food recipes.

Koshin

Do you love some extra punch of umami in your soups? Perhaps you would love to make koshin mushrooms a part of your recipe.

It has an aroma even stronger than the yori variant and is one of the most popular choices among mushroom lovers.

People also love to chop koshin up and put it in their mixed rice recipe. It just tastes fantastic. Besides, it’s also pretty easy to find.

How to cook shiitake mushrooms

Apart from being one of the healthiest dietary supplements, shiitake is one of the most versatile food ingredients when it comes to cooking.

You can boil, sautee, bake, fry, put it into soup, and whatever else you like. Shiitake mushroom is like the Tom Hanks of the culinary world; it fits in everywhere

Following are some great recipes to make with shiitake mushrooms, in both dry and fresh form:

Fresh shiitake mushrooms dishes

Fresh shiitake mushroom is a flavored-packed fungus that can be prepared either on its own or added to other recipes to enhance its flavor with all that umami goodness.

Here are some creative ways you can cook fresh mushrooms:

Sauteed shiitake mushrooms

Sauteeing shiitake mushrooms with butter, salt, and pepper might be one of the best things you will ever bless your tastebuds with.

The natural umaminess combined with the infusion of buttery goodness and a pinch of salt and pepper can complement any recipe in the world.

Shiitake mushroom and green bean stir fry

Ok, this recipe is pretty much the simplest but downright mouthwatering!

All you need to do is slice the fresh mushrooms evenly, put some oil on a pan, and stir fry the mushrooms with garlic, onions, ginger, and green beans.

You can also add some oyster sauce to give the stir fry a layer of another unique flavor.

Once prepared, you can eat it individually or pair it with brown rice. In both cases, you aren’t going to regret this!

Sesame shiitake

Out of sesame chicken to pair with your favorite bowl of rice? Try shiitake mushrooms.

Having a chewy texture, they make an excellent substitute for any meat, but just a little more flavorful. In fact, it could become your favorite over chicken.

The taste and texture of shiitakes is too good!

Roasted shiitake mushrooms

As I have mentioned, shiitakes taste too good on their own to be flavored with something else. This recipe brings out shiitake’s authentic flavors without suppressing it with spices.

All you need to do is to toss a few sliced mushrooms on a baking sheet, accompany it with some herbs of your choice, and after 10 minutes, you’ll have some bites of pure delight waiting to be eaten.

I like to put in a few garlic cloves to enhance the dish’s flavor.

Stuffed shiitake mushrooms

Though this might seem a bit unconventional for people used to making mushrooms the western way, stuffed mushrooms are quite popular in Asian cuisine.

Try eating shiitake mushrooms stuffed with spring onions, tofu, and garlic, and see if it appeals to your tastebuds. I’m sure you will love it!

Dried shiitake mushrooms dishes

Ready to take a deep dive into the umami-rich world of shiitake recipes?

Let’s have a look at what recipes go great with dried shiitake mushrooms:

Dried shiitake mushroom soup

Japanese cuisine is almost non-existent without soup, and the soup itself is incomplete without the signature umaminess.

Add dried mushrooms to your soup and a bunch of other vegetables to make a super-flavorsome comfort dish to warm yourself up.

Vegan dashi miso soup with shiitake mushrooms

Well, it’s just a few months until the winters knock at our doors, and with it, all those lazy, cold evenings where the appetite for warmth is hard to ignore.

If you like to have soups in those days, try making a miso dashi with shiitake mushrooms.

The dried mushrooms combined with green onions, ramen noodles, and seaweed makes a hot and filling soup that’s a true cold killer, and I mean it!

Shiitake stroganoff

Mushrooms are the heart of many Russian dishes. But stroganoff? That’s a whole new level! If you haven’t tried it yet, right now might be a great time!

Just side it with noodles or rice, and see the wholesome, stir-fried umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and sauces engulf the rice in a tide of tasty goodness.

It’s one of my favorite recipes with shiitake mushrooms. You can also try other mushrooms, but they won’t add that amazing flavor that shiitakes do.

Vegan shiitake meatballs (not meatballs)

In love with Italian cuisine but want to remain loyal to your vegan diet? Shiitake meatballs might be something that could interest you.

Just make sure to steam the balls before stir-frying them. This will ensure that the balls remain plumb and juicy while being crisp and firm on the outside.

Afterward, mix them in your favorite puttanesca sauce, put them on pasta, and be ready to be blown away by the burst of flavors that comes with it.

Forager’s pie

It’s basically the vegan version of Shepherd’s pie. The recipe uses mushrooms instead of meat to give the dish its characteristic filling essence.

The only thing you will be doing a little differently is to add shiitake mushrooms instead of “any” mushrooms.

It will keep its meatiness intact and give it a perfect aroma and taste.

Shiitake is also perfect for placing the octopus when you are making this vegan takoyaki recipe

Are shiitake mushrooms as healthy as they say?

Enough with the food talk! Now comes the real business- the medicinal benefits- the thing shiitake mushrooms are known for.

What are they? And whether the specific fungi are as special as it is said to be?

Let’s discuss its different effects on your body and find out whether they are as “good.” But before that, let’s have a look at the nutritional profile of shiitakes:

Nutritional information

Shiitake mushrooms are a great source of minerals and nutrients to keep your daily intake at maximum levels.

Following are some of the key minerals and vitamins your body gets per serving of a shiitake mushroom:

  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin D
  • Thiamin
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Vitamin B6
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Phosphorus
  • Nutrients (Per 100 gram serving)

You can expect the following nutritional intake per one-half cup of shiitake mushrooms:

  • Calories: 34
  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 2.4 grams
  • Sodium: 9 milligrams
  • potassium 304 milligrams
  • Dietary fiber: 2.5 grams
  • sugar: 2.4 grams
  • Protein: 2.5 grams
  • Carbs: 7 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0.5 grams (saturated)
  • Health benefits

Now that you know what you are putting inside your body per serving of shiitake mushrooms, let’s have a look at what they do to your body:

Improves heart health

Shiitake mushrooms have no unsaturated fats (the bad ones) and are also naturally low in sodium. This automatically reduces your chance of getting heart problems.

Moreover, they are also a great source of beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that aids in reducing the already existing unsaturated fats in the body.

Not to mention the role of all that potassium in keeping your blood pressure at optimum.

Improves prostate health

Shiitake mushrooms contain a unique antioxidant, ergothioneine, that eases oxidative stress (the inability of the body to detoxify cells and tissues by removing reactive oxygen species) and improve prostate health.

A study conducted in 2019 on over 36000 Japanese men between the ages of 40 and 80 found that making wild mushrooms a part of their daily diet significantly lowered their chances of developing prostate cancer.

Strengthens immune system

Copper is crucial for the body’s immune system to function correctly.

It helps make red blood cells in the body, maintains nerve cells, and produces various kinds of white blood cells.

Some of those cells include T-lymphocytes, Phagocytes, neutrophils, B-lymphocytes, and killer t-cells, all of which actively participate in keeping your body safe against different diseases.

Consuming shiitake mushrooms regularly in your diet ensures that your body has ample copper to properly produce immune cells in the body.

Prevents gingivitis

Gingivitis is a disease caused due to accumulation of harmful bacteria in the mouth, resulting in gums damage.

The extract of shii mushrooms prevents the growth of those bacteria while promoting the growth of useful bacteria.

This keeps your teeth and gums safe and makes them healthy over time.

Has anticancer effects

Shiitake mushrooms contain an anticancer substance called lentinan. According to research, it is associated with preventing colorectal and gastric cancer.

That’s also one of the reasons why the mushroom holds so much medicinal importance and is used in various medicines.

Helps provide optimum nutrition

Shiitake mushrooms are rich in nutrients and minerals and provide the much-needed protein, zinc, and other body essentials to maintain good health.

That’s especially good news for religiously vegetarian people.

Here, it’s important to mention that zinc is only found in red meats, poultry, and seafood.

Hence, eating shiitake mushrooms will help you reach your daily nutritional goals without compromising your diet.

How to store shiitake mushrooms

When stored properly, shiitake mushrooms can last for several weeks or months!

Here’s how to store them:

Storing shiitake mushrooms fresh

You can store fresh shiitake mushrooms by putting them in a freezer.

However, before that, you would like to soak them for at least 5 minutes in a solution of water and lemon juice.

This will help prevent the mushrooms from getting dark as they sit in the freezer.

After soaking, steam the mushrooms for about 3 minutes and drain the liquid.

Now put them in an airtight container and store them in a freezer. The mushrooms should be good enough for 6 months.

Storing shiitake mushrooms dry

If you want to store shiitake mushrooms solely for their flavor, you should try storing them dry.

Just put them in a low temp oven or dehydrator, and let it dry the water content inside. Afterward, store them in a dark place.

You can use dried shiitake mushrooms for more than 9 months.

Just don’t forget to seal them in an airtight container or plastic, and never expose them to moisture.

FAQs

What is shiitake mushroom good for?

Shiitake mushrooms are rich in nutrients and have ample beta-glucans that help prevent cell damage, prevent cell damage, and promote white cell production while also helping to fight cancer.

Moreover, shiitake mushrooms also help in regulating body blood pressure.

Is shiitake a psychedelic?

For most of history, especially in Chinese traditions, shiitake mushrooms were considered “magical” due to their medical significance.

Modern studies have found that shiitake mushrooms are medically essential and save people from deadly diseases like leukemia and other cancers.

Can shiitake be poisonous?

Generally, shiitake mushrooms are not poisonous. However, eating the raw can trigger an allergic reaction known as flagellate dermatitis, which lasts for about 3 weeks with treatment.

Is shiitake Chinese and Japanese?

Though most of the shiitake production worldwide comes from Japan, it was first discovered and used in China.

The Japanese were the pioneers who started cultivating the mushrooms on an industrial scale, and they still remain on top.

Conclusion

A popular ingredient in a Japanese food lover’s kitchen and one of the most revered medicinal edibles; shiitake mushroom is both flavorful and healthy.

Apart from being a pure bliss for your tastebuds, it’s also used in medicines to treat numerous diseases, with a huge number of general health benefits.

In fact, it is so renowned for its medicinal uses that it is called one of the divine “treasures” Shannon bestowed upon the people of this world in the old Chinese traditions.

In the modern-day, shiitake mushrooms are cultivated globally and are commonly used in recipes to give them the signature umami flavor that turns even the dullest of dishes into pure deliciousness.

In this article, I discussed every basic thing you need to know about shiitake mushrooms to get started if you have never used them before. Plus, some great dishes to try!

Got some shiitake at home? Use it for this delicious Vegetarian Vegetable Mushroom Toban Yaki Recipe

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.