Stir-Frying Shiitakes

Shiitakes (Lentinula edodes) are edible mushrooms, which are also considered medicinal mushrooms in some forms of traditional medicine.

Shiitakes are native to East Asia. Shii is the Japanese name of the tree Castanopsis cuspidata that provides the dead logs on which shiitakes are typically cultivated, and take means “mushroom.” Other common names by which the mushroom is known in English include “Sawtooth oak mushroom,” “black forest mushroom,” “black mushroom.” “golden oak mushroom,” or “oakwood mushroom.”

Shiitake are native to Japan, China, and Korea and have been used in all three countries since prehistoric times. Ancient Asian healers prescribed shiitakes for a host of ailments including cold, flu, sinus problems, headache, measles, worms, constipation, hemorrhoids, gout, liver disorders, nutritional deficiencies, poor circulation, and sexual dysfunction. The oldest record of the shiitake mushroom dates back to 199 AD in Japan, when natives of Kyushu presented Emperor Chūai with a gift of shiitake mushrooms.

Shiitakes have been cultivated for over 1,000 years. The first written record of shiitake cultivation can be traced to Wu Sang Kwuang in China, born during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1127).

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), shiitake mushrooms were considered the “elixir of life” and were reserved for the emperor and his family. Physician Wu Juei wrote that the shiitake mushroom could be used not only as a food but as a medicinal mushroom, taken as a remedy for upper respiratory diseases, poor blood circulation, liver trouble, exhaustion and weakness, and to boost qi, or life energy. It was also believed to prevent premature aging.

The Japanese cultivated the shiitake mushroom by cutting shii trees with axes and placing the logs by trees that were already growing shiitake or contained shiitake spores.

To make shiitake available year round and to speed the time to fruiting, the plastic bag method using enriched sawdust was developed in the early 1970s.

In 1982, Gary F. Leatham published an academic paper based on his research on the budding and growth of the Japan Islands variety of shiitake mushrooms; the work helped make commercial cultivation possible in the United States. Now American consumers can purchase fresh shiitakes at almost any grocery store.

Although Japan was at one time the world’s largest producer of shiitake mushrooms, that distinction now goes to China, which produces over 80% of all commercially sold shiitake mushrooms. Japan, Korea and Taiwan also produce shiitake mushrooms, as does the United States. One quickly growing market for shiitake mushrooms is Brazil, which currently produces more shiitake mushrooms than any other South American country.

Shiitake mushrooms can:

  1. Support your immune system.  Polysaccharides are large-sized carbohydrate molecules composed of many different sugars arranged in chains and branches. Shiitakes are unique in their variety of polysaccharides, and especially their polysaccharide glucans, in which all of the sugar components involve the simple sugar glucose. Among the glucans contained in shiitake mushroom are alpha-1,6 glucan, alpha-1,4 glucan, beta-1,3 glucan, beta-1,6 glucan, 1,4-D-glucans, 1,6-D-glucans, glucan phosphate, laminarin, and lentinan. Shiitake mushrooms also contain some important non-glucan polysaccharides, including fucoidans and galactomannins. Beta glucans are sugars that are found in the cell walls of shiitake mushrooms. They increase the number of probiotic bacteria in your intestines, especially if you are over the age of fifty. Beta glucans stimulate the activity of white blood cells called macrophages, which are immune cells that identify, ingest, and demolish invading pathogens and stimulate other immune cells to attack. Macrophages also release cytokines, chemicals that enable the immune cells to communicate with one another. In addition, beta glucans stimulate other white blood cells called lymphocytes that bind to tumors or viruses, and release chemicals to destroy them. Shiitake mushrooms can help activate macrophage cells so that they can do a better job clearing potentially cancerous cells. The immune-related effects of polysaccharides in shiitake mushrooms can help with exercise stress, exposure to inflammation-producing toxins, radiation exposure, and immunodeficiency. Beta glucans also help your body fight bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment and viruses that cause upper respiratory infections. They fight a form of Escherichia coli (ETEC), which cause traveler’s diarrhea. They also fight upper respiratory infections from colds and flu. Lentinan strengthens the immune system and helps combat illnesses that attack the immune system like AIDS. Another key nutrient for healthy immune system function is vitamin D, and shiitake mushrooms, especially when exposed to sunlight, provide significant amounts of vitamin D. Organically-grown shiitake mushrooms, have 100 IU of vitamin D2 per 100 grams. When dried outdoors in the sunlight with their gills facing upward for full sun exposure for two days, six hours per day, the vitamin D levels in these mushrooms soars to nearly 46,000 IU per 100 grams. (Their stems produce relatively little vitamin D: about 900 IU.) Mushrooms dried this way preserve significant amounts of vitamin D2 for nearly a year after exposure. This means that you can capture vitamin D in mushrooms and have a ready source of this important vitamin — and delicious mushrooms — through the fall, winter, and spring.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. Shiitake mushrooms protect your cardiovascular health in several ways. A nutrient in shiitakes called d-Eritadenine (also called lentinacin, or lentsine, and sometimes abbreviated as DEA) can help lower total blood cholesterol. This nutrient is actually derived from adenine—one of the building blocks (nucleotides) in the mushroom’s DNA. The beta-glucans in shiitake mushrooms may also contribute to their cholesterol-lowering impact. Shiitake mushrooms can also help protect you against cardiovascular diseases (including atherosclerosis) by preventing too much immune cell binding to the lining of your blood vessels. In order for immune cells and other materials to bind onto your blood vessel linings, protein molecules called adhesion molecules must be produced and activated. By helping to block the adhesion molecule production process, substances in shiitake mushrooms can help protect your blood vessels. Chronic oxidative stress in your cardiovascular system (ongoing, oxygen-based damage to your blood vessel linings) is a critical factor in the development of clogged arteries (atherosclerosis) and other blood vessel problems. One of the best ways to reduce your risk of chronic oxidative stress is by eating a diet rich in antioxidant nutrients. Shiitake mushrooms are an excellent source of three key antioxidant minerals: seleniummanganese, and zinc. They also contain some unusual antioxidant phytochemicals (actually mycochemicals in this case). One of the best studied is ergothioneine (ET). This unique antioxidant is derived from the amino acid histidine, although it’s unusual since it contains a sulfur group of molecules that are not present in histidine itself. ET provides special benefits for your mitochondria, which use oxygen to produce energy for your cells. Heart cells have greater concentrations of mitochondria than most other cell types in your body, so ET may be one of the key nutrients from shiitake mushrooms that provide you with cardiovascular support. In addition to being an excellent source of pantothenic acidriboflavin, cholinevitamin B6, and niacin, shiitake mushrooms are good source of folate. They also provide you with thiamine and may provide you with vitamin B12, most likely produced by bacteria on the surface of the mushroom caps. Deficiencies of vitamin B6 and B12 or folate can increase your risk of elevated homocysteine and, along with it, your risk of cardiovascular disease (especially atherosclerosis).
  3. Fight cancer. Lentinan, a type of beta glucan found in shiitake mushrooms, is believed to reduce tumor activity and lessen the side effects of cancer treatment. Many components of shiitake mushrooms can help block tumor growth, sometimes by triggering programmed cell death (apoptosis) in the cancer cells. These components are referred to as “anti-tumor mycochemicals” provided by shiitake mushrooms. There may be more than 100 different types of compounds in shiitake mushrooms may work together to accomplish these anti-tumor results. By providing you with their unique blend of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients, shiitake mushrooms may be able to help you decrease your cancer risk, because most types of cancer begin their development in states of chronic inflammation and chronic oxidative stress.
  4. Fight chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases your risk of experiencing many common health problems, including arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. Eating shiitake mushrooms can block production of pro-inflammatory molecules, reduce chronic inflammation, and sometimes preventing it from occurring at all.
  5. Fight free radicals. Shiitake mushrooms are an excellent source of selenium, manganese, and zinc. All three minerals are critical antioxidants and are also required for the functioning of antioxidant enzymes. The antioxidant content of shiitake mushrooms also includes some unusual antioxidant molecules, such as ergothioneine, an amino acid-like molecule that specifically helps prevent oxidative damage to DNA and proteins.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Cooked Shiitake Mushrooms

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

copper

1.3 mg

65%

pantothenic acid

5.2 mg

52%

selenium

36 µg

37%

vitamin D

100 IU

25%

manganese

0.3 mg

15%

riboflavin

0.2 mg

15%

zinc

1.9 mg

13%

choline

53.4 mg

12.6%

fiber

3 g

12%

vitamin B6

0.2 mg

12%

niacin

2.2 mg

11%

folate

30.5 µg

8%

carbohydrates

20.9 g

7%

potassium

170 mg

5%

magnesium

20.3 mg

5%

protein

2.3 g

5%

Calories

81.2

4%

phosphorus

42 mg

4%

iron

0.6 mg

4%

thiamine

0.1 mg

4%

vitamin C

0.4 mg

1%

fat

0.3 g

0.45%

calcium

4.4 mg

0.44%

sodium

5.8 mg

0.24%

vitamin A

0 IU

0%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

Fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms are available throughout the year. Look for shiitake mushrooms that are firm, plump, clean, and brown. Avoid those that are wrinkled or have wet slimy spots. Choose certified organic mushrooms to avoid contamination with synthetic herbicides, insecticides, and heavy metals.

The best way to store loose shiitake mushrooms is to keep them in the refrigerator set at 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) in a loosely closed paper bag. This storage methods will help preserve the mushrooms’ moisture without causing them to become soggy or slimy and keep them fresh for several days. Refrigerator storage is especially important for preserving the mycochemicals in shiitake mushrooms. Do not leave mushrooms sitting out on the counter top or store them in a cabinet.

Store dried mushrooms in a tightly sealed container in either the refrigerator or freezer, where they will stay fresh for six months to one year.

Mushrooms are so porous that if they are exposed to too much water, they will quickly absorb it and become soggy. Clean them using little or no water by wiping them with a slightly damp paper towel or kitchen cloth, or use a mushroom brush.

To prepare, gently break off the stems with your hands. The stems are too tough to use.

To sauté shiitake mushrooms, heat 3 tablespoons of broth over medium heat in a skillet. When the broth begins to steam, add sliced shiitake mushrooms and sauté for 7 minutes. Stir constantly for the last 4 minutes of cooking. Toss with your favorite dressing or seasonings. Large shiitakes can also be grilled or broiled. Lightly spritz caps with oil to keep them moist, and season with salt and pepper. Grill or broil 4 to 6 inches from heat source for 4 to 6 minutes on each side, spritzing with oil or water once or twice. Virtually any and all seasonings go well with mushrooms.

To enjoy:

  • Stir fry shiitake mushrooms with onions, garlic, ginger, red peppers, tofu, and bok choy
  • Use sautéed mushrooms and onions as a side dish
  • Add sliced shiitake mushrooms to your tofu scramble
  • Add sliced or chopped shiitake mushrooms to stir fries, soups (especially miso soup), or stews
  • Sauté shiitake mushrooms with snap peas and tofu, season to taste and serve over buckwheat soba noodles
  • Sauté shiitake mushrooms with asparagusgarlic, and tofu for a complete meal

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