Until not so long ago, the only shiitake mushrooms available outside of Asia were the dried kind, which you could buy at Chinese supermarkets as well as a few health food shops.
They had to be soaked in water before use and I always found the texture more like felt than anything else.
I used them about four times but could never get them as tender and silky a Yeung of the now defunct Mandarin near Plaza Gomila, opened in 1968 and the island’s first Chinese restaurant.
That texture problem doesn’t exist nowadays because shiitakes are cultivated all over the world (including Mallorca) and can be bought fresh at market stalls, fruit and veg shops, as well as some supermarkets.
The Montiel fruit stall at the Mercat d’Olivar has the biggest and best selection of wild and cultivated mushrooms, and the shiitakes usually cost around €12 a kilo.
As always with mushrooms of any kind, a small amount goes a long way: to make a risotto or pasta for four, 250 grs of shiitake will do nicely.
Some cookbooks tell you to wash shiitake under a running tap, but unless mushrooms of any kind are absolutely filthy, never let them near water. All they need is a careful wipe with a damp cloth.
In their natural habitat, shiitakes grow on the bark of the shii tree, so they are never very dirty and don’t need washing with water. When the Japanese first started to cultivate shiitake, the bark of the shii tree was sown with the spore.
But nowadays the shiitake is grown worldwide without the help of shii tree logs. The modern method is to grow them on hay sprinkled with flour milled from wheat and other cereals.
That is why shiitake mushrooms are so clean they need only a brief wipe with a dry cloth or kitchen paper. If you wash them they will be waterlogged and that will change the texture and taste.
Shiitakes can be used in most recipes that call for ceps or the common cultivated mushroom. They are at their best when served simply grilled or sautéed as a starter, or as a mains with pasta or rice.
Before doing anything with the shiitakes you have cleaned with a dry cloth, snip off the stalks and put them aside for the stock pot. The stalks are leathery and quite inedible, but they will add some flavour to a stock.
I bought some last week and sautéd the caps in butter for two minutes on each side. I then sprinkled them with a few Maldon salt flakes and black pepper. They were delicious and had a lovely silky texture. Done like that, they are ideal for serving with grilled or roast meats.
One of the useful features of shiitakes is that when cooked they sit very flat and look good on the plate. In many dishes this gives them great visual impact that is missing in other mushrooms.
To make the most of their eye appeal, you should use them whole. When used in rice and pasta dishes, whole shiitakes look quite stunning and they make a superb addition to most Asian noodles dishes.
In traditional Japanese and Chinese noodle dishes that call for shredded vegetables, whole small specimens will make the dish much more attractive.
The visual effect is quite spectacular when you sauté them in a generous amount of butter and stir them into creamy scrambled eggs.
The bright yellow of the eggs and the deep brown of the shiitakes make a simple but lovely colour combo. Your scrambled eggs will always have a richer yellow colour if you use free range eggs.
If you are serving a cream soup or a consommé, a lone shiitake floating dark side up in the middle of a plate or bowl, is also a pretty and appetising sight.
The underside cavity isn’t deep enough to stuff, but shiitakes are ideal or toppings made with chopped vegetables, fish or meat. They can be prepared beforehand and heated through in the oven or under a grill.
A starter of slivered roasted red peppers generously dressed with virgen extra olive oil, also looks special when you place a biggish shiitake in the middle of each plate.
A dish of stir-fried shredded vegetables will benefit from the addition of a handful of whole shiitakes. The more colourful the vegetables, the more spectacular the visual impact of the dark brown shiitakes.
If you make a vegetable paella, season it with a little saffron to give the rice a nice pale yellow colour. During the five minutes when the paella is resting before taking it to the table, decorate the top with shiitake caps that have been lightly sautéed on both sides in virgen extra olive oil.
Shiitake little starter recipe
For another little starter most people will enjoy, sauté some shiitakes in butter for a minute on each side. Dip them immediately into beaten egg and then into breadcrumbs, then sauté them in plenty of butter until they are of a light golden colour on both sides.
In any dish with a breadcrumb coating you will always get better results is you use panko, the Japanese breadcrumbs.
Look for panko from Japan or from some other Asian country such as Thailand or Singapore. You’ll find imported panko at the Chinese supermarkets in the Plaza Pedro Garau area.
When fried in breadcrumbs like this, I prefer them on their own, with no seasoning other than freshly ground black pepper.
They are also very special with with a light wholegrain mustard such as moutarde de Meaux which is available at El Corte Inglés and some other supermarkets.
The shiitake, the world’s second most consumed fungus after the common cultivated mushroom, is a nutritional powerhouse that especially benefits our immune system.
Shiitake extracts are used in a series of medicines aimed at fortifying our defences against flu, colds, herpes and urinary infections, among others.
It is rich in protein, iron and vitamins and is especially beneficial for children because it improves their absorption of calcium and increases the production of the growth hormone.
Various studies have shown that after 10 days of eating 100 grs of shiitakes every day, the cholesterol count of those taking part fell by 25 per cent.
When eaten on a regular basis, shiitakes can also help to lower blood pressure and the glucose count.
These are some of the reasons why the shiitake is sometimes called the ‘longevity mushroom’…and some of the reasons why we should be eating them two or three times a week.