The Japanese diet appeals to people around the world for many reasons, the relative health, longevity and slimness of the Japanese people among them. A large part of what makes Japanese cuisine, or washoku, so healthy is the wide variety of foods that make up a well-balanced Japanese diet. However, while many people know about the benefits of ingredients like tofu and green tea, fewer people understand the important role of Japanese mushrooms in the washoku diet.
In addition to being delicious and flavorful due to their high umami content, Japanese mushrooms provide numerous health and nutritional benefits. If you’re interested in eating healthier foods, here are five essential types of Japanese mushrooms to add to your diet.
Shiitake is probably one of the best known types of Japanese mushrooms. This mushroom is low in calories and packed with B-complex vitamins, which improves metabolism by helping your body convert food into energy. B vitamins also aid in the production of red blood cells, which is useful for those suffering from anemia.
While shiitake mushrooms can be eaten raw, dried or cooked, cooking them is actually the least nutritional option. The dried variety is certainly rich in vitamins and minerals, but raw shiitake offers by far the most health benefits. A single serving of four raw shiitake mushrooms has only 26 calories and less than a gram of fat, plus 2 g of dietary fiber and almost 2 g of protein, both of which will leave you feeling more full and satisfied for longer. Cooked and dried shiitake mushrooms have less protein and fiber than raw ones, but they do have slightly more calories at around 40 calories per serving of four mushrooms.
Shiitake contains essential minerals, such as magnesium and potassium (around 5% of the daily recommended value) and around 10% of the daily recommended value of phosphorus, which is particularly good for strong bones. It’s also an excellent non-animal source of iron. Recently, researchers have also begun investigating the mushroom’s cardiovascular benefits.
Maitake is another one of the major culinary types of Japanese mushrooms. It grows in tight, flower-like clusters and has an earthy, nutty taste that makes for excellent tempura, pairing well with soba or udon.
Recent research has shown the many health benefits of maitake mushrooms, including their ability to boost the immune system, which makes it a popular ingredient in dietary supplements and powders. This is due to maitake’s beta glucan content. Beta glucane is a complex sugar that activates and increases the activity of the immune system to help the body fight illness more quickly and efficiently. Studies show that beta glucan may also trigger cancer fighting cells, possibly making chemotherapy more effective.
In addition, maitake mushrooms have been shown to decrease the negative side effects of anti-cancer drugs, including nausea, vomiting, and hair loss, when consumed during treatment.
Other studies have shown that maitake mushrooms can help modulate glucose, which may be beneficial to those at risk for type-2 diabetes.
Enoki mushrooms have long, white stems that grow in slender clusters and have a light, somewhat sweet flavor. They are frequently used in soups and dishes like nabe and sukiyaki. Similar to the shiitake mushroom, enoki mushrooms are low calorie, low fat, and sugar free. In addition, like other mushrooms enoki is high in B vitamins, but it’s particularly rich in niacin, which helps support adrenal functions and is necessary for metabolism. In a single cup serving, enoki mushrooms offer 23% of the daily recommended value of niacin. This can help reduce the potential for heart disease and may be useful in preventing second heart attacks in those who are at risk.
Eryngii (King Oyster) Mushrooms
The eryngii mushroom is the largest species of the oyster mushroom. It has a thick white stem and a meaty texture and can be thickly sliced and grilled like steak.
Eryngii has naturally occurring antioxidants, including the amino acid ergothioneine, which protects the body’s cells against free radicals (harmful damaged cells), thus reducing the risk of chronic disease. Ergothioneine, an antioxidant found in eryngii mushrooms, is not reduced by cooking. Eryngii also contains a disease fighting compound called Lovastatin, which helps clear cholesterol from the body’s circulatory system, improving blood flow.
Eryngii mushrooms are also rich in a number of nutrients, containing significant amounts of zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and folic acid. It’s also an excellent source of the essential mineral selenium, and easier to absorb than the inorganic selenium typically found in dietary supplements.
BUNA-SHIMEJI (HYPSIZYGUS TESSELLATUS)
Buna-shimeji are fairly small mushrooms with white, long, often-curved stems and tan caps. They taste bitter when raw, but this is replaced with a nutty flavor when cooked. They have a firm, slightly crunchy texture. They are good for most recipes.
ENOKITAKE (FLAMMULINA VELUTIPES)
Enoki mushrooms are named after the tree on which they grow, which is known as the Chinese hackberry in English. However, they also grow on other trees, like mulberry and persimmon trees. In the supermarket, they are easily recognizable as dense clumps of small, white mushrooms with long, slender stems. Cultivated enoki are grown in a dark, carbon dioxide-rich environment to keep them white and encourage long stem growth, respectively. Wild enoki tend to be dark brown, with shorter, thicker stems.
Enoki don’t have a strong flavor, so they probably aren’t the best mushroom to take center stage in a dish. They do have a relative crispness to them. For these reasons, plus their small size, they are often used in soups and stews. They could also be used in some side dishes or salads.
Kikurage (Wood Ear) Mushrooms
Although the name may sound unfamiliar, kikurage, or wood ear mushrooms, are actually some of the most commonly eaten types of Japanese mushrooms; as they are a common ramen topping, chances are you have even eaten them before. Kikurage mushrooms have a dark color and an unusual, crunchy texture.
A one cup serving has only 80 calories, contains no sugars, and has less than 1 g of fat. Kikurage mushrooms also contain 2.6 g of protein and more than half the daily recommended dietary fiber intake. They’re high in iron and contain significant amounts of both B-1 and B-2 vitamins, the latter of which helps your body convert carbohydrates into glucose and supports liver function.
Kikurage mushrooms have long been used for its health benefits in traditional Asian medicine, benefits just now becoming recognized in Western medicine as well. Kikurage has an anti-inflammatory effect, which can help alleviate cold symptoms and sooth mucus membranes. It also contains antioxidants that protect the heart and can lower both total cholesterol and bad cholesterol (LDL), while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).
As ubiquitous as kikurage are in Japan, not all are created equal: an especially sought-after species of kikurage mushroom, so rare that it has actually been christened “the Black Diamond” of mushrooms, is actually sold right here on the Washoku Explorer site. After reading about one producer’s difficult quest to obtain and cultivate these mushrooms, perhaps you’ll decide to try them for yourself.
Japanese Mushrooms Compliment Washoku
Japanese mushrooms are clearly an important part of a well-balanced washoku diet. In addition to being delicious, Japanese mushrooms have high nutritional value, a number of health benefits and a long history of use in traditional Asian medicine. Modern studies are finding that, in addition to cardiovascular benefits and an immune system boosting effect, Japanese mushrooms may even contain anti-cancer properties.
Of course, you should consult your doctor if you intend to use Japanese mushrooms alongside any medical treatment. However, for those who are interested in starting healthier eating habits, Japanese mushrooms are a low-calorie, low cholesterol food that can add variety—not to mention great taste—to your diet.