Article

Call of the wild: shiitake mushrooms

Categories: Expert guidance

In a three-part series, Luke Mackay explores three types of wild mushroom and their varying virtues. This time, mushrooms with gills

Mushrooms with gills are those most likely those imagined when one thinks of a generic mushroom. A central stem, wide domed cap and fleshy spore dropping gills are characteristic of thousands of mushroom varieties. From the classic and common portobellos (agaricus bisporus) to the terrifying amanita virosa, cheerily known in Europe as ‘the destroying angel’ which will kill you and your dining companions in a heartbeat should you ingest even a tiny morsel in an otherwise ‘safe’ soup.

Mushroom gills are the thin, papery structures that hang vertically under the cap. The sole purpose of these gills, called lamellae, is to produce spores. The spores are then dropped from the gills by the millions where they are scattered by wind currents. Some recipes call for the gills of edible mushrooms to be removed but I can think of absolutely no good reason why. Perhaps the dark colouring that leaches into say, a cream sauce made with portobellos might be unattractive to some, but it seems to me to be a rather precious desecration.

Shiitake mushrooms make up an astonishing 25 per cent of the world’s cultivated mushrooms and enjoy almost mythical status in Chinese and Japanese cultures, as they have been eaten and used in medicine since the Ming Dynasty in the 13th century. They grow naturally in clusters in the rotten fallen branches and stumps of deciduous trees in the warm humid climes of south-east Asia, but are now cultivated easily in many countries across the world.

Umami bomb
The medicinal properties of the shiitake are legion and written about at length in other places, but at Borough Market we are primarily interested in taste, taste, taste. There are few ‘tastier’ mushrooms than the shiitake—especially when dried, as they become a serious umami bomb, adding phenomenal savouriness to stews, broths and all manner of dishes. Fresh too, they offer something much more interesting and authentic to stir fries and soups, with a flavour profile that is unrepeated anywhere else in nature—both meaty and deeply vegetal, like a mulchy forest floor on a cold Autumn day.

This earthiness works splendidly with sweet and sour flavours, so in my dish this month I have paired them with sweet rich duck breast and tangy tamarind sauce. Pickling some in a soy-vinegar stock and deep frying the others in a light tempura batter shows how tremendously versatile they are, and they complement each other, as well as the duck, perfectly.

So tasty are shiitake that it’s important not to waste any part. When fresh, the stems can be a touch ‘woody’ and tough but don’t discard them—cut them off and pop them in a freezer bag. Adding a handful to any stock will add a punch of flavour. Equally, when rehydrating dried shiitakes, don’t for goodness sake dispense with the liquid: freeze or use immediately in any number of recipes for added, earthy depth.