The name shiitake originates from its Japanese name, shiitake, shii is the tree Castanopsis cuspidata on which dead logs it is typically cultivated, and take means „mushroom“.
Shiitake are native to Japan, China and Korea and have been grown in all three countries since long time. They have been cultivated for over 1,000 years.
During the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368 – 1644), physician Wu Juei wrote that the 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 mushroom by cutting shii trees with axes and placing the logs by trees that were already growing shiitake or contained shiitake spores.
Fresh and dried shiitake have many uses in the cuisines of East Asia. In Chinese cuisine, they are often sauteed in vegetarian dishes such as Buddha’s delight. In Japan, they are served in miso soup, used as the basis for a kind of vegetarian dashi, and also as an ingredient in many steamed and simmered dishes. In Thailand, they may be served either fried or steamed.
Shiitake are also dried and sold as preserved food. These are rehydrated by soaking in water before using. Many people prefer dried shiitake to fresh, considering that the sun-drying process draws out the umami flavour from the dried mushrooms. The stems of shiitake are rarely used in Japanese and other cuisines, primarily because the stems are harder and take longer to cook than the soft fleshy caps.
Today, shiitake mushrooms have become popular in other countries as well. Russia produces and also consumes large amounts of them, mostly sold pickled; and the shiitake is slowly making its way into western cuisine as well. There is a global industry in shiitake production, with local farms in most western countries in addition to large scale importation from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.
Like all mushrooms, shiitakes produce vitamin D2 upon exposure of the ergosterol to the UVB rays of sunlight or broadband UVB fluorescent tubes.
While all mushrooms have ergosterol in and the potential to produce vitamin D2 in such a manner, the transparent white of the shiitake gills permits greater contact of the UVB with ergosterol and very high D2 values can be achieved with exposure to broadband UVB fluorescent tubes !