These rather ropey-looking fungi are widely available in most supermarkets, but are the sort of thing that, unless you’ve tried them before, you will probably instinctively ignore. I can’t say I blame you either – they look like leaf-litter and are hardly shy on the fragrance front. But take my word for it – these ugly little munters are shrivelled proof of how very deceptive appearances can be.
You see, shiitake are not only a delicious alternative to regular (and let’s face it often boring) cultivated mushrooms, they’re also considered a ‘super-food’ with proven cancer-fighting and anti-viral properties. I’m normally pretty cynical of such claims, but the virtues of shitake are one of the few topics upon which both Western and Eastern medical practitioners see eye to eye. So seriously is this cure-all quality taken in Japan that shiitake are available by state-subsidised prescription.
While I do gain a certain smug satisfaction from all this spin, the real attraction for me is simply that shiitake taste really good. They have a far more robust, earthy flavour than field mushrooms, with a similar meatiness to porcini. Shiitake offionados actually prefer the dried form of the mushroom to fresh (which are available in some fruit & vege shops) as the drying process improves the flavour. Dried shiitake can be used in practically any Asian recipe requiring mushrooms and can make an often superior substitute for the same in western dishes.
Before you can use dried shiitake they need to be rehydrated. Simply cover with warm water for 30 minutes to an hour, squeeze dry and snip off the tough stems. When reduced, the soaking liquor makes a dark and meaty stock which works very well in soups and fried noodle dishes.
Once soaked, the shiitake can be sliced and used like any other mushroom. They also make a very fine mushroom salad. This is currently my favourite way with shiitake and is quite dangerously more-ish stuff.
2 cups pre-soaked and squeezed shiitake
4 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon chilli oil (optional)
Roughly chop the mushrooms and mix thoroughly with soy, vinegar, and oil. Season to taste.
Doesn’t sound like much, but just you wait…
This salad is a great partner to a decent piece of red meat or a handsome slab of salmon. Alternatively – and perhaps unexpectedly – it’s freakishly good scattered over a pizza.
Dried shiitake are available at most good supermarkets but are generally far cheaper at Asian supermarkets.
Go out and buy some today. That’s an order.