Shiitake mushrooms are a staple food of Asian cuisine, but modern cultivation techniques have distributed them worldwide. Part of their popularity stems from their fantastic nutritional values—but not many people know these fungi also have a unique history behind them.
Recent research shows that shiitakes can have other uses outside of the kitchen. Several studies indicate they could have significant anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties. Here’s what you need to know.
Shiitake mushrooms, scientifically known as Lentinus edodes, are an edible fungus primarily found in East Asia. It’s one of the most popular species worldwide, generating over one billion dollars in revenue yearly. In fact, experts estimate that it’s the second most cultivated edible mushroom—only behind the famous Agaricus bisporus.
Its name comes from two separate words in Japanese: “shii” for the Castanopsis cuspidate tree, and “take” for mushroom. However, it also goes by several other names, including (1) (2):
The golden oak and black forest names mainly stem from shiitakes being wood-rot fungi. This means they grow on fallen trees and logs—particularly oak, chestnut, and beech. In nature, they’re almost exclusively found in East Asia, but modern cultivation techniques have allowed them to grow on other continents (2).
Shiitakes are an important part of Chinese, Japanese, and many other East Asian countries’ cuisine. Known for their intense aroma, they have a pleasant umami taste and a chewy texture. Dried shiitakes are particularly common, as the lack of water enhances the flavor (3).
Shiitake mushrooms have a distinct appearance that makes them easy to tell from other species. The cap measures 5–15 cm (2–6 in) and is usually convex (although it may appear flat in some specimens). Its color usually ranges from light to dark brown, with its center showing a darker tone.
The cap will appear almost entirely smooth in younger specimens, but it will start to crack with age, exposing a white color. Similarly, it may begin to form tiny scales near the edge of the cap.
The stipe is relatively thin but long, often measuring 3–7cm (1–2.7 in), and has a paler color than the cap. A key characteristic of these fungi is that they will bruise brown when damaged. The shiitake spore print is completely white (2) (4).
There aren’t any scientifically recognized varieties of shiitake mushrooms. However, cultivators have established at least five different types of shiitakes depending on each specimen’s size, color, and shape. These are (5):
Mycology circles don’t accept these varieties, so it’s possible that you won’t find shiitakes labeled like this in your local market. The only varieties (or strains) accepted among mycologists only vary in growth parameters.
These strains have names such as ATCC #58742 or Mon #465—so you can rest assured that you won’t find them labeled like that in your grocery store! But it’s not even that important to keep varieties in mind when buying shiitakes. No evidence supports that they could have different nutritional values or health benefits (2).
Shiitake mushrooms are possibly one of our oldest companions when it comes to the fungi world. Ancient Asian cultures used these mushrooms for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before we discovered how to cultivate them for mass production.
The most detailed records of shiitake mushrooms come from the Ancient Chinese, who believed that shiitakes were a gift from the gods. Specifically, they believed they were brought to Earth by Sheonnong—a deity-like figure closely linked to farmers and land workers.
As such, it’s very possible that these mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes since even before writing existed. Legend even says that Samurai warriors often forbade other people from harvesting shiitakes to keep them for themselves (3) (6).
The first official record of shiitakes that we know of dates back to 199 A.D. when a native Japanese tribe offered Emperor Chuai a shiitake mushroom. However, experts point out that older records may exist in China, with shiitakes being referred to as “ko-ko.”
In 1313, Waeng Cheng, a Chinese author, published shiitake cultivation techniques in his work “Book of Agriculture.” There, he described how to prepare the substrate—although in a very primitive approach that involved clubbing the wood to promote fungi growth (1).
After that, shiitakes started spreading to the rest of the world, and the cultivation techniques became more sophisticated. It was first described (scientifically) by botanist Miles Joseph Berkeley in 1877. He originally named it Agaricus edodes.
However, there was a lot of disagreement among mycologists regarding how the species should be named. Rolf Singer finally settled this and transferred it to the Lentinus genus. But this period of confusion was enough to spawn dozens of synonyms that are commonly used even today (2).
Nowadays, shiitakes are a popular mushroom all around the world, and scientists are mostly focusing on their possible therapeutic benefits. You probably didn’t expect this mushroom to be such a historical rabbit hole, huh?
Shiitakes are a perfect example of “functional mushrooms”—species with significant nutritional and health benefits. This makes them the ideal addition to any diet, and even more so if you want to replace meat with vegan-friendly alternatives.
Like most mushrooms, shiitakes are composed of approximately 90% water. However, experts estimate that the dried fruiting bodies contain 60% total carbohydrates, 20% total protein, and 4% total lipids. Plus, they contain the following essential micronutrients (1):
As for the health benefits, research indicates that shiitake mushrooms contain a polysaccharide called “lentinan.” This compound has been shown to have significant antitumor and anticarcinogenic effects, capable of regressing certain types of tumors (1).
A 2015 study also confirmed that adding Lentinula edodes could improve your immune system. The results implied that shiitakes improve cell proliferation and activation, reducing inflammation and promoting gut immunity (7).
Another important property of shiitakes is that they can reduce high blood cholesterol levels—a primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease. While more research is needed, a preliminary study indicated that shiitakes could reduce blood cholesterol by up to 25% in just a week (1).
Naturally, these effects are nothing new—ancient cultures already used these mushrooms for healing purposes long before science could study them. Still, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t use these fungi for medicinal purposes without checking with a doctor first.
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia, specifically Japan, Korea, and China. Yet, modern cultivation techniques have allowed these mushrooms to grow on other continents as well—although not without human intervention.
The species grows on dead or dying hardwood trees such as oaks, beeches, and other broad-leaf species. The most common one is the shii tree, which gives it its name. Experts also indicate that shiitakes may appear on fallen logs as well. The fruiting bodies usually grow during spring and autumn (2) (3).
For artificial cultivation, the mycelium grows on hardwood-based substrates supplemented with nitrogen-rich mixtures. This technique results in dense bags or blocks that should be placed in a controlled environment growing room. As such, this species might not be the best place to start if you want to grow your own mushrooms (2).
Ethical wildcrafting refers to a series of guidelines that aim to reduce environmental damage when harvesting mushrooms. Wildcrafting is often confused with foraging—but the two differ in that the first refers to harvesting for medicinal purposes, and the second for eating.
Practicing ethical wildcrafting can go a long way in keeping your local fungi populations healthy, along with the animals and plants that feed on them. Here are some of the basics of harvesting mushrooms to avoid environmental damage:
If it’s your first time going out to pick fungi, we recommend finding a local harvesting group. These communities usually have several amateur mycologists who can teach you how to harvest natural resources without damaging the ecosystem.
It’s never 100% safe to eat wild-picked fungi. No matter which species you’re looking for, chances are you’ll come across several potentially-poisonous lookalikes. The most infamous lookalike for shiitakes is Galerina marginata—an extremely toxic fungus that also grows on trees.
Plus, wild mushrooms (including shiitakes) may contain environmental pathogens, which could lead to several gastric problems. As such, it’s best to only eat mushrooms bought from professional cultivators—and even more so if you’re planning to try them raw.
Shiitakes can be used in a variety of dishes, ranging from stews to salads. Possibly the most common way to use them is in a traditional Japanese soup that calls for shiitakes and green onions in chicken broth.
However, other people may choose to include them in risottos, pasta, or quiches. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You can cook these mushrooms in various ways, such as boiling, simmering, roasting, or stir-frying.
Shiitakes go incredibly well with other mushrooms, such as pink oyster mushrooms, portobellos, or white button fungi. This allows you to reap several benefits from various functional mushrooms in simple but delicious dishes.
An easy vegetarian stir-fry recipe could be fresh shiitake and button mushrooms sauteed with soy sauce and vegetables served over rice. Due to their distinct umami taste and chewy texture, people often use these mushrooms as meat substitutes in recipes.
It’s not recommended to eat raw shiitake mushrooms as these can trigger an allergic reaction, such as a rash called “flagellate dermatitis” or “shiitake dermatitis.” This rash often appears on the chest, arms, legs, and neck, and may last for several days. However, not everyone gets this side effect from eating raw shiitakes—so check with a doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary (8).
Shiitake mushrooms are among the most common edible fungi in the world. With a long history of use as folk medicine, these mushrooms have been shown to have several therapeutic properties and fantastic nutritional values. Although they only grow naturally in East Asia, modern cultivation techniques have allowed people from other continents to enjoy this traditional Chinese and Japanese delicacy.
If you want to find out about other types of mushrooms, keep up on shroomer. Here, you’ll get all the details you need about psychedelic and functional fungi from all over the world, along with the latest news on medicinal research on edible mushrooms.