Shiitake mushrooms have grown in popularity from Asian kitchens into all of America's kitchens, thanks to their rich, earthy flavor.

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These days, the average 12-year-old with cable TV knows as much about food and cooking as the most savvy food aficionado of the last century. But once upon a time, ingredients like saffron, balsamic vinegar and shiitake mushrooms were as rare as pearls, and their mere presence distinguished a dish as the height of sophistication.

In the 1980s when I was cooking in a restaurant on San Juan Island, and knew infinitely more about everything than I know now, a man came to the back door of the restaurant and offered to sell me some mushrooms. He had raised the mushrooms by planting imported spores into handmade “logs” that he crafted from alder chips gathered at a local sawmill. The mushrooms were exotic-looking brown specimens, a fresh version of the dried mushrooms I had been buying from stores in Seattle’s Chinatown International District on my occasional forays into the city.

I bought the mushrooms at once and set up a time to visit his growing operation. In a simple greenhouse-like structure, the mushroom farmer had set up shelves to hold hundreds of his alder-chip logs. A small refrigerator held test tubes filled with microscopic spores. It was a simple system, and I found it thrilling.

After that, spring at the restaurant was marked with local morels, and autumn brought the wild chanterelles, but throughout the year, these island-grown shiitake became the standard “forest” mushroom in my kitchen.

Eventually, fresh shiitake from larger producers became so widely available and so inexpensive that our local grower could no longer compete, and these days, shiitake mushrooms have become so common in America that they have lost some of their esoteric appeal. But they could never become so ubiquitous that I would cease to like them, and I am not the only one still in thrall of their culinary charms. In China, and most other Asian countries, shiitake mushrooms are as common as button mushrooms are in Europe; and just as the gray-white bulbs of Agaricus bisporus continue to play a vital role in European dishes, the woody brown discs of Lentinula edodes continue to find a receptive place in the kitchens with an Eastern bent.

In a number of recipes in his book “Easy Chinese Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood,” Ken Hom calls for Chinese Dried Black Mushrooms, and in the chapter on the Chinese larder, he explains that these black mushrooms “add a very desirable flavor and aroma to Chinese recipes. It is interesting to note that these mushrooms grow on fallen, decaying trees; the Chinese have been gathering them for more than a thousand years. The Japanese cultivate them by growing them on the shii tree; hence the familiar fresh shiitake mushrooms.”

What makes the shiitake mushroom so desirable in Asian dishes also makes them valuable to Western cooks. The deep color is appetizing, the woody fragrance is alluring, and glutamines found in the mushrooms heighten our sense of taste; anything cooked and served with these mushrooms will have a more pronounced flavor. This quality of heightened taste, which the Japanese call umami, may be thought of as the actual flavor of the glutamines, which is a subtle, meaty taste, or it may be understood as the heightened awareness of flavor promoted by the glutamines. Either way, shiitakes have it in spades. Common or not, they are still exciting to me.

Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Recipe: Beef Stir Fry with Broccoli and Shiitake

Serves 4

In this simple Chinese-American dish, a mainstay in Chinese restaurants, shiitake mushrooms lend depth of flavor and textural contrast to grocery-store vegetables and beef. I use organic products whenever possible, because I believe they are better for us and taste better, too.

1 ounce dried shiitake mushroom slices or

¼ pound fresh shiitake caps

2 tablespoons natural soy sauce

2 tablespoons cooking wine or sherry

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1 garlic clove, grated or finely chopped

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 pound natural flank steak

2 tablespoons rice bran or peanut oil

1 pound broccoli, rinsed and cut into 2-inch-long pieces

1 bunch scallions, cut on the diagonal into ¼-inch slices

1. If you are using dried mushrooms, put them in a measuring cup or a bowl and add just enough boiling water to cover them; press down on the mushrooms with a slotted spoon to help them absorb the water. Let them soak while you prepare the other ingredients. If you are using fresh shiitake, remove the stems and slice the caps into ¼-inch strips.

2. Stir the soy sauce, cooking wine, ginger, garlic, cornstarch and sesame oil in a small bowl and set aside.

3. Cut the flank steak lengthwise into four strips, then cut the strips across the grain into pieces no more than ¼ inch thick.

4. Heat a 14-inch wok over high heat until a drop of water dances immediately and evaporates in one or two seconds. Swirl the rice-bran or peanut oil in the pan. Add the beef, distributing it evenly over the surface of the wok, and let it cook undisturbed for a minute to brown. Add the broccoli and shiitake caps and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a metal spatula or tongs.

5. Give the soy-sauce mixture a quick stir to unsettle the cornstarch and pour the mixture all at once over the beef and broccoli. Toss and cook the mixture for another minute or two to form a shiny glaze over the meat and vegetables. Just before serving scatter the scallions on top.

Greg Atkinson, 2008