Shiitake: Let Food Be Thy Medicine

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) have been a staple in East Asian cuisine and traditional medicine for centuries. Known for their unique flavour, texture, and numerous health benefits, these mushrooms have become increasingly popular worldwide. 

History of Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia, particularly China, Japan, and Korea. Their name originates from the Japanese words "shii," which refers to the tree species Castanopsis cuspidata, and "take," meaning mushroom. Shiitake mushrooms have a long history, dating back at least 1,000 years, with records indicating their cultivation during the Song Dynasty in China (960–1279 AD).

In Japan, the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms is thought to have started in the 12th century. It is said that a Japanese woodcutter named Wakatake discovered the mushrooms growing on fallen shii trees and decided to propagate them. This technique of inoculating logs with mushroom spores eventually became a widespread method of shiitake cultivation.

In both Chinese and Japanese folklore, shiitake mushrooms are considered symbols of longevity and good health. They have been used as a tonic to improve overall well-being and were often given as gifts to friends and family members.

Traditional Use of Shiitake Mushrooms 

Traditionally, shiitake mushrooms have been used in East Asian medicine to strengthen the immune system, promote circulation, and support liver health. They were also believed to help with fatigue, respiratory issues, and gastrointestinal disorders.

In addition to their medicinal uses, shiitake mushrooms have long been valued for their culinary attributes. Their rich, earthy flavour and meaty texture make them a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to stir-fries and rice dishes.

Current Use of Shiitake Mushrooms 

Today, shiitake mushrooms are widely available and continue to be valued for their health benefits and culinary uses. Scientific research has validated many of their traditional medicinal uses, leading to a growing interest in their potential as a functional food.

In the kitchen, shiitake mushrooms remain a popular ingredient in many Asian dishes and have been incorporated into a variety of international cuisines. They can be found fresh, dried, or in powder form and are used in numerous recipes, such as pasta dishes, risottos, and pizza toppings.

Cultivation, Harvesting, and Processing 

Shiitake mushrooms are primarily grown on hardwood logs or in controlled environments using sawdust or other growing mediums. The traditional method of cultivating shiitake mushrooms on logs is still practiced today, especially in Japan. This method involves inoculating logs with shiitake spores or mycelium, which then grow and fruit over several years.

In commercial cultivation, shiitake mushrooms are often grown in controlled environments on sawdust or other substrates, which allows for faster production and more predictable yields. These mushrooms are usually ready to harvest within a few months.

Once harvested, fresh shiitake mushrooms can be consumed immediately, stored in the refrigerator for a short period, or dried for long-term storage. Drying shiitake mushrooms concentrates their flavour and allows for easy rehydration when needed.

Medicinal Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms as Supported by Scientific Research

Recent research has identified several bioactive compounds in shiitake mushrooms that contribute to their medicinal properties. These include polysaccharides, such as beta-glucans, which have been shown to possess immune-boosting and anti-tumour effects. Additionally, shiitake mushrooms contain eritadenine, a compound known to help lower cholesterol levels.

Some of the key medicinal benefits of shiitake mushrooms supported by scientific research include:

  1. Immune Support: Studies have shown that shiitake mushrooms can enhance immune function by stimulating the production of immune cells, such as macrophages, and by increasing the activity of natural killer (NK) cells. These effects may help the body better fight off infections and prevent illness.
  2. Anticancer Properties: Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, a polysaccharide that has been found to possess anti-tumor activity. Research has shown that lentinan may help inhibit cancer cell growth and metastasis and enhance the effects of chemotherapy.
  3. Cholesterol Reduction: Eritadenine, a compound found in shiitake mushrooms, has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels by inhibiting the enzyme that produces cholesterol in the liver. Additionally, the beta-glucans in shiitake mushrooms can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract.
  4. Antiviral and Antimicrobial Activity: Shiitake mushrooms have demonstrated antiviral and antimicrobial properties, potentially helping to combat a variety of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Incorporating Shiitake Mushrooms into Daily Life

Shiitake mushrooms can be easily integrated into your daily diet, providing both culinary enjoyment and potential health benefits. Here are a few simple recipes to get you started:

Shiitake Mushroom Stir-Fry:


  • 2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup capsicum, sliced
  • 1 cup snow peas
  • 1 cup broccoli florets
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers, snow peas, and broccoli, and stir-fry for 4-5 minutes. Add soy sauce and oyster sauce, and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice or noodles.

Shiitake Mushroom and Spinach Risotto:


  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced or diced
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup white wine or verjuice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook until softened. Add Arborio rice, stirring until coated with oil. Add white wine or verjuice and cook, stirring constantly, until absorbed. Gradually add vegetable broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding more. Continue this process until the rice is cooked and creamy. Stir in shiitake mushrooms and spinach, cooking until the spinach wilts. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese (optional). Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.



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  4. Ng, M. L., & Yap, A. T. (2002). Inhibition of Human Colon Carcinoma Development by Lentinan from Shiitake Mushrooms (Lentinus edodes). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 8(5), 581–589.
  5. Okubo, H., & Sakoda, A., & Hirotsu, K. (2013). Improvement of QOL and Immunological Function with Lentinula edodes Mycelia in Patients Undergoing Cancer Immunotherapy: An Open Pilot Study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 19(5), 37-44.





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