Ancient Egyptians believed that mushrooms grew by magic, because they appear overnight. They associated the fungi with immortality and therefore included it as a speciality in the diet of their revered pharaohs. The Chinese, too, have associated mushrooms with longevity for thousands of years. The word “mushroom” is derived from the old Gallic word “mousseron”, which was later modified to “champignon” in modern French.
Today we have access to over 2 300 species of edible and medicinal mushrooms, which are used in gourmet restaurants all over the world. Button mushrooms are the most common ones appearing on menus, followed by shiitake and oyster mushrooms. These three varieties accounted for nearly 76% of the global mushroom market size in 2013.
The humble white button mushroom, which is popular both cooked and raw and is readily available all year round, may also have significant health benefits. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, USA, discovered that just a handful of them contains 12 times more of the powerful antioxidant L-ergothioneine than can be found in wheatgerm and four times more than that found in chicken liver, which were previously believed to be the best sources. L-ergothioneine counteracts cell-damaging substances known as free radicals and protects the body’s DNA from damage.
Shiitake is the most widely known of all oriental mushrooms and is quite mild when bought fresh, but drying concentrates its flavour. It has a firm, meaty texture that becomes slippery when cooked. These mushrooms are a rich source of the active anti-viral compound lentinan, which is believed to boost the immune system. Shiitakes may also help lower blood cholesterol and reduce the harmful effects of saturated fats.
Oyster mushrooms are ear-like, silvery-grey or greyish-brown variants that grow in clusters. They’re now cultivated, so they’re more readily available and are found in many supermarkets. Oyster mushrooms have a subtle flavour and are often used in Oriental cooking. They cook down to virtually nothing and are comparatively expensive, so they’re often used in combination with other mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms are rich in protein (30% by dry weight), loaded with B vitamins, cholesterol-free and contain significant levels of the cholesterol-lowering molecule lovastatin. A tea made from wood-grown, freeze-dried ones is thought to boost the immune system.
Another local favourite is the porcini mushroom, a meaty mushroom, similar to the Portabello mushroom, which contains ergosterol, a cytotoxin that attacks enemy cells. It’s also known to help reduce inflammation. Researchers doing a study on ageing found that chronic inflammation is one of the most common ailments endangering the elderly, so stock up on porcini mushrooms if you want to live longer!