It has been encouraging to see the variety of mushrooms available at grocery stores and farmers markets increase greatly over the last few years. Gone are the days when the white button family were the only mushrooms one could buy. Now, mushrooms such as black trumpet, lobster, chicken of the woods, mittaki (or hen of the woods), king oyster, enoki, chanterelle, porcini and morel are just some of the mushrooms now available at well stocked or specialty grocery stores. Not only do mushrooms have a variety of tastes, textures and multiple culinary uses, but they have been used as medicines for thousands of years. Many varieties including shiitake, chaga, reishi, cordycepts and turkey tail have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Russian herbal medicine for thousands of years. Medicinal mushrooms have given us many important pharmaceutical medicines from penicillin to the first statin drugs and anticancer treatments. Actually, about 40 % of western medicines nowadays utilize mushrooms.

Mushrooms belong to the vast kingdom of fungi. They are neither plant nor animals. Their cell structure is made of a polysaccharide called chitin, a substance found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and shellfish. They capture (breathe) oxygen and emit (exhale) co2 like mammals. Even stranger is their ability to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight like mammals. In essence, mushrooms are closer in nature to human or insects than plants.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, a mat - like web of feathery fingers called hyphae that grow on the surface of the soil. These bodies are reproductive structures that grow above ground to release spores from their gills. The wind carries and distributes these spores to other locations to start new mycelium mats. Fungi primarily feed on the rotting decay on the forest floor. They consume nutrients by emitting digestive enzymes onto their surroundings and absorb the nutrients of the decomposing material. Digestion literally takes place outside the mushroom! They expel nitrogen and phosphorous and other minerals essential for a thriving forest, a truly symbiotic relationship with the forest. In fact, more than 90% of the world’s plants require a fungus symbiosis to grow.

The kingdom of fungi is more akin to a universe! There are thousands of known species, not to mention all the unknown species and they all contain families within families! It can get complex. Suffice it to say that not only are there many different kinds of mushrooms, but many ways for them to grow. The species we are most familiar with are the white button, cremini and portobello variety that have haunted grocery stores for a long time. They are from the genus agaricus bisporus and only differ in age (portobello being the mature state). Other ground growing mushrooms are puffballs, boletes (think porcini), chanterelles, black trumpet, shaggy mane, lobster and honey mushrooms to name but a few. Those that grow on trees either symbiotically (co-existing with the tree), or as a parasite (which attack the tree) are largely called bracket, shelf fungus, conks or polypores. Shiitake, chicken of the woods, reishi and chaga are all part of this type. Sac fungus or cup fungus include morel mushrooms, yeast, truffles and ergots (a family of fungi that grow on grain and cause poisoning over time). I can’t leave out the coral and tooth fungus variety which include the medicinal lions mane mushroom which looks like this:

Mushrooms have been the object of scientific research for many years and are considered to have valuable immune-building and anti-cancer properties. How do mushrooms do it you ask? Select fungi have the ability to develop natural substances that can prevent unwanted bacteria and viruses from replicating inside their cells. Shiitake mushrooms have been used as food and medicine for centuries. They contain an active compound called lentinan which is a polysaccharide shown to have anti tumour and antiviral activity and the ability to stimulate Killer T cells. In Japan, shiitake extracts are used as a complimentary cancer treatment as they are thought to help the treatment be more effective while also reducing the unpleasant side effects. They are prepared in soups and stir -frys as well as in teas and tinctures.

The famous reishi mushrooms are conks that grow on dead or dying hardwood trees as well as conifers such as hemlock. They are kidney or fan-shaped and reddish with a wet, lacquered appearance when young. The shiny, reddish cap is one of the main identifying features of reishi mushrooms.The history of the use of reishi goes back many thousands of years in Asia and is highly valued in Chinese herbal medicine for its immune support. This is due to its high content of polysaccharides which are complex sugars that are an essential food for the immune system. They have been shown to increase RNA and DNA in bone marrow where immune cells are produced. In fact, reishi has a “double-direction” effect on the immune system by regulating antibody production. They increase support to the under active immune, or decrease support to the overactive immune. They are referred to as adaptogens, which balance immunity and hormones. Reishi are dried and powdered and made into to teas, tinctures and capsules.

As mentioned earlier, mushrooms contain Vitamin D, which is a vitamin many seem to be deficient in. Vitamin D is important to the body in many ways: It helps the body absorb calcium and prevent osteoporosis. It allows muscles to move and helps nerves carry messages between the brain and every body part. The immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses, so yes… very important!

Cultivated mushrooms contain a plant sterol called ergosterol, which is the precursor of Vitamin D2. In fresh mushrooms, ergosterol is stimulated to convert to Vitamin D2 by ultraviolet light, either from sunlight or artificial lights. For a long time it was thought that D2 wasn’t as effective as the animal sources of D3 (fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and fortified foods), or D3 supplements. However, In 2013, a study was conducted to examine the Photobiology of vitamin D in mushrooms and its bioavailability in humans. The conclusion was that the D2 in Mushrooms was just as effective as D3 supplements. Some mushroom producers have been trying to increase the amount of D in their harvested mushrooms by exposing them to ultraviolet rays immediately after picking. These are being called Super - D mushrooms!

Additionally, Shiitake mushrooms are an excellent source of copper, selenium, zinc, fibre, and provide a rich combination of B vitamins, including excellent amounts of B2 and pantothenic acid, and good amounts of B3, B6, B12, folate and choline. Mushrooms contain proteins as well, but the amount differs from variety to variety. Shiitake are also great for digestive health. They contain carbohydrate-related molecules called glucans and beta glucans which are polysaccharides (structures comprised of linked sugars). These polysaccharides cannot be broken down by enzymes in our digestive tract. This is great news for the beneficial bacteria that dwell in our lower intestines because they use glucans as food and create byproducts that support gut health.

There really are endless amounts of fascinating insights when it comes to mushrooms and their health benefits, but what got me interested in them in the first place is how delicious and versatile they are when it comes to culinary uses. From the soft tofu - like texture and mild flavour of a puffball to the rubbery texture of the wood ear and the strange earthy taste and spongy -ness of of the morels… there is a kind of mushrooms for everyone!

Some specifics :
Shittake can be purchased fresh or dried, as can many mushrooms these days. They are know for their umami or savoury meaty taste and chewy texture. Like may mushrooms they are extremely versatile when it come to culinary use. Commonly found in asian dishes, they can be delicious in many surprising ways. Shiitake bacon, for one, can be enjoyed in salads or as a garnish for soups. It adds a chewy or crispy texture and deep salty umami flavour to almost anything. To make, slice thinly, sprinkle with a light high temperature cooking oil and some tamari or soy sauce and roast on 400 degrees F until they begin to crisp. Additionally great in nori rolls, soups and stir fry of course.

King oyster are a mild tasting, soft and spongy mushroom that are definitely becoming a regular at most grocery stores. My favourite way to eat them is to slice the thick round stems into rounds resembling scallops, season with salt and pepper and pan fry until golden. They are fabulous with lemony cashew cream and salty seaweed caviar. Also great in stir frys and sliced into matchsticks for hot and sour soup.

Chaga - This special mushroom is a clinker polypore found on yellow and white birch trees in cold regions like Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. Many feel it is the king of medicinal mushrooms because of its vast health benefits. People have been known to take chaga for heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, inflammation, parasites, stomach pain, and certain types of cancer. It is the second most antioxidant-rich food in the world aside from cacoa. It resembles dry cork or burnt or crumbly wood and had been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Russian herbal medicine for centuries. It can be made into an elixir or coffee type beverage by boiling its small pieces or powder in water for varying lengths of time depending on the texture. It has a mild vanilla flavour and is quite pleasant. It can be purchased in health food stores or online.

Liz Murray