As I ponder for a savoury non-Asian side dish that is vegetarian/vegan friendly for a Thanksgiving potluck, the heavenly aroma of the dried shiitake somehow found its way from my Tupperware into my imagination. A rare find in western cuisines, the dried shiitake with a feathery weight packs a hefty umami punch that is common to savoury products such as meat and cheese; it is the perfect item that complements vegan dishes.
The shiitake is an edible mushroom native to East Asia, which is cultivated and consumed in many Asian countries, as well as being dried and exported to many countries around the world. Shiitake is native to China but have been grown in both Japan and China since prehistoric times. It has long been considered a delicacy as well as a medicinal mushroom. They have been cultivated for over 1,000 years; the first written record of shiitake cultivation can be traced to Wu Sang Guang, born during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1127). However, some documents record the uncultivated mushroom being eaten as early as AD 199.
In China, it is called xiānggū "fragrant mushroom". Two Chinese variant names for high grades of shiitake are dōnggū "winter mushroom" and huāgū "flower mushroom", which has a flower-like cracking pattern on the mushroom's upper surface); both are produced at colder temperatures.
Shiitake are often dried and sold as preserved food in packages. These must be rehydrated by soaking in water before using. Like most Asians, I prefer the dried shiitake to fresh; the sun-drying process draws out the umami flavour from the dried mushrooms by breaking down proteins into amino acids and transforms ergosterol to vitamin D. The stems of shiitake are rarely used in Japanese and other cuisines, but they are excellent in flavouring stocks and broths.
Apart from its unique texture and the intoxicating aroma and flavour that continuously excite your sensory neurons, nutrients found in the shiitake mushroom has been suggested to possess anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. It has been shown to carry the ability to stimulate the immune system, and consists of a compound known as eritadenine that could potentially lower blood cholesterol.
With all that put into words, I hope I have erase any of your doubts to introduce this dried delicacy into your kitchen cabinet!