Shiitake/shi-itake, Chinese mushroom, black mushroom, golden oak, oakwood, black forest, black mushroom
(Lentinula edodes and Lentinus edodes) “Shii” is the name for one of the various Japanese trees whose dead wood serves as host to the mushroom, usually from the beech family (Castanopsis cuspidata) or the Japanese chinquapin, which also plays host to many mushroom types. “Take” means mushroom in Japanese. Therefore, the English habit of saying “Shiitake mushroom” is redundant when it should simply be “shiitake”. This mushroom is native to China, and has been cultivated for over 1000 years. The first written record of shiitake cultivation comes from writings during the Sung Dynasty (960-1127 CE), but some documents record this strongly flavoured gourmet mushroom was being eaten in 199 CE.
Shiitake farming is relatively new to the West, but not so in Asia. In Japan, it is grown commercially on logs of chestnut, oak, or hornbeam. In Japan, shiitakes are graded into two main qualities. Donko is the preferred, with thick, roundish, partly open caps. Koshin is given when the thinner cap is fully open. A similar distinction is made in China, where the donko is known as “floral” because the white patterns show more distinctly. Shiitake did not inspire western growers until 1986 when it reached a level sufficient enough to be included in USDA reports. By 1998, that meager beginning had risen to over eight and one-half million pounds of production annually, and is now the second most important cultivated fungus. Grades of shiitake are based on numerous criteria; but, in the US, there is only one – size. Being typically American, larger ones are prized over the smaller even though the flavour of the smaller is better. The best shiitakes selected from hundreds of possible strains are those whose flavour hints at garlic, pine, and autumn leaves. Fresh shiitakes arrive in the US by ship from China and are at least two weeks old. Those on the East Coast arrive by air, thus, they are much fresher, but also more expensive.
A native of tropical environments, shiitake requires heat, moisture and plenty of nutrients in order to fruit. Commercially, it is normally grown in bags of growing medium inoculated with shiitake spawn; but smaller producers introduce shiitake spawn into hardwood logs, usually poplar logs. This procedure forms dense, flavourful, premium mushrooms marketed as “Log Grown Shiitake”. Their stems are very woody and are often discarded, but they can be saved and added to soups or to form the basis of a broth. Dried shiitake mushrooms have a very intense flavour and are excellent in cooked dishes. Asian cultures place a premium on dry shiitakes with a cracked white cap, which is thought to be a sign of good energy (chi).
A full-sized shiitake can possess a cap four inches wide, but occasionally larger. It is usually brown fissured with a network of white cracks. The off-white gills are split and torn and run part of the way down the stem like a fan. Several species grow wild in Europe and the US, where the edible ones are known as “railroad wrecker”, stemming from its ability to destroy wooden ties or sleepers on railroads. It is sometimes referred to as winter mushrooms because that is the season of their growth when the cold slows them down and they can absorb more nutrients. Shiitake has long enjoyed a reputation for its health-giving aspects. Called the “elixir of life”, shiitakes have been shown to ward off the flu and to lower blood cholesterol levels.