I sometimes wonder whether the more uncommon and bizarre ingredients I buy are so obscure, that no-one googles them to stumble upon my adventures and research around them. I’m certainly not going to let that put me off, but perhaps I ought to relax my personal guidelines on what classes for “unusual ingredients.” In light of that, this post is about something you’ll find in most supermarkets and that I love cooking with: shiitake mushrooms.
Mushrooms of all kinds are a staple of most people’s idea of vegetarian cookery, and with their strong, savoury flavour and firm meaty texture, shiitakes are the king of the meat substitute. In the modern climate of Meat Free Mondays and the rising costs of meat, both financial and environmental, it’s no surprise that big stores have caught on and British grown specimens of this East Asian vegetable are easy to find. They can be cooked just as you would any other mushroom and the late Marcella Hazan even suggests them as a substitute for fresh, wild porcini mushrooms because of their intense flavour. I rarely buy them fresh except when part of those “exotic mushroom” packs that I get for the fairy-tale shimeji mushrooms. I prefer my shiitakes dried.
All mushrooms are rich in a group of compounds called glutamates (MSG is also chemical in this family) that are detected by our taste buds to produce a savoury flavour. As well as mushrooms, they are common in cooked meat, fish, seaweed and fermented foods like soy sauce and cheese. Shiitake mushrooms have an unusual property that means when they are dried, the umami, savoury qualities are enhanced. It is for this reason that has made shiitake mushrooms so common as ingredients in soups and stocks in Asia, particularly in Chinese, Korean and most importantly, Japanese cooking (shiitake means tree mushroom in Japanese).
Rehydrated in a cup of hot water from the kettle, a single dried shiitake, sliced, will enhance less flavoursome mushrooms and the brown liquor left behind makes for a good stock. Alternatively, add them directly to Asian-style soups and stews or when making stocks – I like to simmer a couple with a smoked gammon joint and some whole spices to make a David Chang inspired base for ramen. The usual way I use them though is soaked, finely chopped and stirred into a mushroom risotto, adding the soaking liquid along with the hot stock for extra mushroom flavour (they’re usually a bit cheaper than the more traditional Italian mushrooms).
Dried shiitakes are a culinary must-have for anyone that loves East Asian cuisine, but the fresh ones are good too when you want a change from plain old button mushrooms.