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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Super healthy shiitake Japan's cultivated mushroom of choice

Of the more than 5,000 species of mushrooms growing in Japan, only about ten are cultivated seriously, yet these form the backbone of a multi-billion dollar food industry. The shiitake (pronounced "shee-tah-kay") is the most widely available and popular mushroom of this select group, and Japan, with an annual crop of over 200,000 tons, produces around three quarters of the world supply, although other countries are growing increasing quantities to satisfy the rapidly expanding market.

Super healthy shiitake Japan's cultivated mushroom of choice。

Analogous to the field mushroom or champignon of Western cooking, shiitake are a necessary ingredient to the cuisine of the Orient, where they are often added to soups, fried vegetable dishes, and nabemono--those one-pot dishes usually cooked at the table. When fresh they are dark brown, with smooth velvety caps from three to twelve centimeters in diameter which are supported on stems about one centimeter thick.

The light beige colored meat is best when the cap is thick, firm, and slightly curled under. Their distinct "earthy" flavor and aroma are actually enhanced when dried, and in this condition they can be stored indefinitely, ready for use as the occasion warrants. The dried variety is available in many grades and prices in Oriental food stores world-wide, and can be reconstituted simply by soaking in tepid water for a short time.

Super healthy shiitake Japan's cultivated mushroom of choice.

Shiitake are saprophytic, growing on rotting hardwood such as konara, kunugi, or other types of oak. Unlike some species, such as the fabulously expensive matsutake which must be picked in the wild, shiitake are easy to cultivate commercially and can be grown at home if one has space for twenty or so logs of the right wood. In Japan, many rural families raise shiitake year-round, either for supplementary income, or just for personal consumption. The logs used are about one meter long and fifteen centimeters in diameter. About fifty holes around one centimeter in diameter and two and a half centimeters deep are drilled in rows. Plugs of spore-impregnated wood chips, called tanegoma shukin, are then inserted. These plugs are sold in seed stores and come in three different types, each for a different season, with the varieties harvestable in spring and winter being most suitable for home use.

Preparation of shiitake logs takes place between November and March, with the first harvest expected in August of the following year. Logs, either plain or already plugged, are available from various Forestry Cooperatives throughout Japan, but because the spore plugs are cheap, most people seem to prefer the do-it-yourself route. Un-plugged logs cost a few hundred yen apiece and spore plugs are about 5 yen each--a pittance when compared with the relatively high cost of fresh shiitake, or the stratospheric price of premium grade dried shiitake. Twenty or more logs take up considerable space, but aside from the initial work of drilling the holes and tapping home the plugs, the logs require only that they be kept moist in a cool, dark place. They will yield shiitake fresher and more fragrant than any sold in stores, and will sprout annually or bi-annually for four or five years, until the substrate completely rots away.

Super healthy shiitake Japan's cultivated mushroom of choice.

Shiitake are receiving increasing attention for their health-promoting qualities. They contain significant quantities of B vitamins, are said to lower cholesterol levels, and may have other medicinal benefits. Because the proper logs are becoming increasingly scarce in Japan, some companies here are financing shiitake cultivation in the U.S., where mushrooms account for about 2% of produce sales dollars. Just a few years ago the world's largest indoor cultivation facility was built in Texas. Farmers and other landowners, meanwhile, are finding they can increase the value and viability of their woodlots by growing mushrooms, as the end product is profitable and requires trees which are not otherwise of commercial interest.

Mushroom lovers not yet acquainted with shiitake are in for a treat. The dried variety's pungent aroma, as well as its conveniently long shelf life make it an attractive and dependable ingredient for many kinds of dishes. Braised whole and flavored with soy sauce, the fresh ones can be a dish in themselves, or they can contribute a subtle nuance of taste and texture to stir fried vegetables, soups, and other dishes. One thing is certain: the popularity of this common, yet elegant, Oriental mushroom is bound to increase.

Written by Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours: Japan-wide travel expert since 1992. Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579 | +81-5534-4372

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