This is the 6th post in a series about the history of mycophilia (a condition characterized by an extremely loving and covetous relationship with mushrooms), where I will at last turn my attention to Asian mushrooms.
I have previously written about mushroom-lovers worldwide, mushroom use in paleolithic times nearly 20,000 years ago, the Aztec love affair with mushrooms, the Greek and Egyptian relationship with fungi, and the Romans. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the rich history of Asian mushroom lovers in China and Japan.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Asian Mushrooms – A Brief History
The Chinese and Japanese are particularly known for their ardent mycophilia, and to this day particular mushrooms convey social status to those lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of fungi. Chinese and Japanese herbalists employed mushrooms to resist disease and prolong life.
Unlike the Mesoamericans, Siberian tribesmen, and possibly classical European cultures, Asian mushroom lovers do not have a tradition of using psychoactive mushrooms and have little fear of wild mushroom poisoning. Instead, they are seen as food and medicine that universally improve the human condition. This fundamental difference makes fungi less terrifying and repugnant to Asians, who tend to view mushrooms as beautiful and refined.
Mushrooms of all sorts appear Asian paintings, tapestries, literature, and sculpture. Moreover, Asian history is marked by deep respect for fungal organisms that stands in stark contrast to the dim view that Westerners have adopted regarding the humble mushroom.
Large-scale mushroom cultivation did not begin with the boring, white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) that the French grew in caves in the early 1800s. More than a thousand years earlier, Japanese laborers used the “soak and strike” method to get shiitake mushrooms to grow on wood.
“Soak and strike” is a simple and rather unreliable technique wherein logs that are colonized with shiitake mycelium are soaked in cold water. After a good long bath, the shiitake log is forcefully struck with a sledgehammer, which was intended to encourage the mushrooms to fruit. To inoculate new logs, shiitake farmers placed colonized logs next to freshly felled logs in the hopes that the desirable mushroom would migrate from one to the other.
By the 16th century, Asian mushroom gurus were cultivating huge quantities gourmet fungi and had developed a rich literature about identifying and using beneficial fungi.
Ganoderma lucidum, Reishi and Ling Zhi
The reishi/ling zhe mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a dusky red wood conk that grows on logs and stumps. The Chinese call it ling zhi (often written “lingzhe” or “ling chi”), or “The Spirit Mushroom,” and the Japanese refer to it as mannentake or “The 10,000 Year Mushroom” because those who partake in it enjoy wisdom and longevity. The Japanese common name for Ganoderma lucidum is reishi. As medicinal mushrooms go, Ganoderma lucidum is among the most treasured fungal organisms on the planet. Fortunately for North American mushroom hunters, there are plenty of places to find Ganoderma lucidum, as well as several other “reishi” species, including Ganoderma tsugae, Ganoderma curtsii, and Ganoderma sessile, which are common in the forests of the eastern United States.
According to Chinese legend, the semi-divine culture hero Shennong invented medicinal mushrooms around 5,000 years ago, along with agriculture, the calendar, and the farmer’s market. Academics are pretty well convinced that Shennong is a mythical character, but 2,000-year-old historical writings document several imperial quests for ling zhi, notably one conducted by Wu of Han, who sent forth hordes of minions in search of the mushroom in the hopes that it would grant him immortality.
Shennong and Wu of Han are not the only Chinese culture icons associated with Ganoderma lucidum, either. Guanyin, the goddess of healing, is often depicted holding Ganoderma lucidum. Another deity associated with this special mushroom is Xiwang-mu, the great mother goddess of the west, who rules over an eternal garden of life and gifts wisdom to the worthy beings of the earth.
Today, Ganoderma lucidum is a staple of Chinese and Japanese herbal medicine. Typically, the fruiting bodies of the mushroom are dried and chopped up, and thereafter boiled for 15-20 minutes into a medicinal mushroom tea. In addition, numerous tinctures and supplements containing reishi mushrooms are sold by the ton worldwide, and scientific study of the different salubrious effects of this mushroom reinforce its traditional reputation as an Asian mushroom that packs a punch of immune-boosting power.
Cordyceps sinensis, The Holy Grail of Medicinal Asian Mushrooms
Folklore has it that 1,500 years ago, Tibetan yak-herders noticed something very strange going on with their herds and discovered the most prized medicinal mushroom of all time. During the summer months, the austere Tibetan highlands grew thick with tall meadow grasses that made terrific yak-fodder, and so shepherds took their animals up into the mountains to graze on luscious pastures.
It came to the attention of the yak-tending Tibetans that mountain-grazed animals grew stronger and lived longer than those that lived at lower elevations. At first they thought it was the robust mountain grass that was responsible, but then an unknown shepherd stumbled upon the answer—Cordyceps sinensis, or the Caterpillar Fungus, grew in the high-altitude meadows and yaks that consumed it during their grazing were markedly healthier than those that grazed at lower elevations.
Cordyceps sinensis is an entomopathogenic fungus (insect pathogen, for the Latin-o-phobe) that attacks and colonizes caterpillars that hibernate just below the soil surface during the cold Tibetan winter. By summertime, the fungus consumes the entire insect and shoots out a small, cudgel-shaped fruiting body that emerges from the ground to spread its spores.
Despite its rather creepy habit of zombifying helpless caterpillars, the Chinese added it to the list of beneficial botanical discoveries and dubbed it Dong Chong Yia Cao, which means “Winter Worm, Summer Grass.” Cordyceps is used to support heart, liver, and kidney function, improve endurance and altitude tolerance, and, perhaps most enticingly, as a potent aphrodisiac.
During the Ming Dynasty, access to cordyceps became the exclusive right of the Emperor, his kin, and favorite subjects. Today, Cordyceps sinensis is pound-by-pound as valuable as the stinky truffle, and in 1993 it became famous in the West when the women’s Chinese Olympic team smashed five world records for long-distance running. The running coach, Ma Junren, responded to cries of foul play and drug use by stating that the only supplement his runners consumed was derived from cordyceps.
Culinary Asian Mushrooms – Shiitake, Maitake, and Matsutake (Oh My!)
In addition to mushrooms that are strictly medicinal, Asians love their edible fungi. Traditional Chinese herbal medicine maintains that food and medicine are one and the same, and so the mushrooms that found their way into Asian cuisine are both tasty and healthful.
The shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is a great example, as is maitake (Grifola frondosa), a fungus that produces a leafy, cabbage-looking fruiting body that was worth its weight in silver in medieval Japan. Both of these mushrooms have well-documented medicinal benefits, including tumor fighting compounds, heart health boosting properties, and general immune-modulating effects that helps us educate our immune systems through the gut. The word “maitake” is Japanese for “The Dancing Mushroom” because the lucky hunter who stumbles across maitake will no doubt be compelled to dance with glee, and it is the focus of some of the most exciting medicinal mushroom research to date.
Another species that’s particularly popular with the Japanese is matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake and its North American cousin Tricholoma magnivelare), or “The Pine Mushroom.” Matsutake is mycorrhizal (living in symbiosis with a tree partner, in most cases pine) and must be gathered from the wild. Matsutake enjoys an age-old reputation for male enhancement, and several men I know who hunt mushrooms attest that this reputation is well deserved. With a musky, enchanting aroma that David Arora famously dubbed “a combination of Red Hots and dirty socks,” matsutake is one of the many forest products that is exported to Asia from the forests of the Pacific Northwest, fetching exorbitant prices, along with geoduck (the giant clam, a Puget Sound native that looks somewhat like a mushroom itself…).
In the 16th century, women were required by law to use a deferential formal name for matsutake—although it wasn’t literally “Oh great penis-lengthening mushroom” that’s pretty much the gist of it. This pungent mushroom smells of cinnamon and earth, and several years ago its value crested near $600.00 per pound. To this day, it’s the piece de resistance in Japan to give one’s manly boss or grouchy father-in-law an ornamental box filled with perfectly formed matsutake in their button phase.
In commerce, matsutake are often rated on a scale of 1 to 3, with #1 matsutake being the most desirable, when the mushroom’s cap has yet to open and expose the gills (see photo at right). #2 matsutake have started to show gill under their pungently aromatic caps, and #3s are fully formed mushrooms that are mature enough to drop their whole payload spores from elegant, blade-like gills.
Concluding Thoughts on “Asian Mushrooms” – Many Grow In North America!
Although all these mushrooms were originally discovered in Asia, many of the species mentioned above grow in the forests of North America, and some of them have close relatives that can readily be hunted by us New World mycophiles. Reishi is one of the most abundant medicinal mushrooms in the eastern U.S., and I have heard tell that Ganoderma lucidum grows on nearly every hardwood tree in New York’s storied Central Park.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa, commonly called hen of the woods in North America) grows all around the eastern United States as well and is a beloved sight at the base of giant black oaks and pin oaks in my own city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Furthermore, should you want to try this treat and haven’t the time to gather it yourself, it can easily be found in Asian markets and some upscale groceries because it’s cultivated commercially and is getting quite a following due to its delicate, delightful flavor and medicinal characteristics.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) does not grow wild in North America, but for those who are committed, there are some reasonably similar mushrooms that grow in the wild, including the giant sawtooth mushroom (Lentinus ponderosus) and the super-interesting train wrecker mushroom (Lentinus lepidus), which has a habit of growing on railroad ties, causing significant enough damage to derail freight trains, hence its menacing name!
Also, just because shiitake is not native doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy it; it’s one of the easiest mushrooms to cultivate at home on logs, and there are many different strains of Lentinula edodes that thrive in different ecological zones around the nation. Finally, a quick note for the truly hopeful among you: I once found a discarded shiitake log in full bloom during a mushroom walk in one of my favorite parks, and it has produced flushes of shiitake for me these past 2 mushroom seasons. Why and how it ended up in a park I will never know, but rest assured, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you may one day find someone else’s mushroom cultivation projects in the forest yourself one day!
Cordyceps sinensis does not grow here in North America either, but the similar Cordyceps militaris is a mushroom that is medicinally prized and native to our forests. It looks a bit like an orange club fungus upon first inspection, but if you dig around the fruiting body a little bit, you will likely unearth the body of a moth larvae that was once the host of the Cordyceps militaris mycelium.
Although a creepy thought (after all, who knows what mad scientists might do with the idea of developing a human-compatible cordyceps fungus! I shudder to think…), Cordyceps militaris is a fascinating North American species that I find from time to time in North Carolina.
Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) can also be found in the United States in the Pacific Northwest, as well as other northern states, including places like Vermont. My own experience with matsutake is a little fraught because at first I had not the first idea how to prepare it for the dinner table, and tried baking it in slices. It ended up eating a bit like squid (not in a good way, in a rubbery way) with that preparation, but shortly thereafter I saw the light when I was served a delicious miso soup with thin-sliced, lightly fried matsutake that was, to say the very least, absolutely heavenly.
Basically what I am saying is that Asian mushroom lovers of the past have given the world a rich background of wisdom and knowledge to draw on when it comes to mycology and mycophagy. Us poor westerners, with our mycophobic tendencies and other fungal hang-ups, have learned much and more from millenia-old traditions that are fundamental to developing an appreciation for the humble mushroom.