Mushrooms have been valued as both food and medicine for thousands of years. Throughout the world, many people enjoy hunting for wild mushrooms, delighting in the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors exhibited by these "flowers of the fall." Europeans have always appreciated the gastronomic value of wild mushrooms. In Japan, pushcart vendors on the streets still sell medicinal mushrooms to the average citizen who uses them to maintain health and promote longevity. Some Japanese people have even been said to travel hundreds of miles in order to collect wild mushrooms that only grow on very old plum trees--such as the Reishi--renowned as a cure for cancer and degenerative diseases. Likewise, for over 3,000 years the Chinese have used and revered many fungi for their health-giving properties, especially tonics for the immune system (Bo and Yun-sun, 1980; Yun-Chang, 1985). To the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria a number of fungi became an important part of their mythology and medical practice (Oso, 1977).
Mushrooms may also be the perfect food for staying trim and healthy. A recent "letter from the editor" in the Nutrition Action newsletter (September, 1994) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest mentioned that up to 1/3 of the U.S. population are overweight. Because fats occur in mushrooms in minor amounts, especially compared with protein and carbohydrates, and the fatty fraction consists predominantly of unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid, they may be the perfect food for losing weight and maintaining a healthy heart and cardiovascular system.
When it comes to mushrooms, most Americans and inhabitants of the British Isles are rather ignorant. Many people in the United States have a distinct dislike, even a fear, of fungi--a phenomenon that may be called "fungophobia"--a term coined by Hay (1887). Rolfe and Rolfe wrote about the distinctly unsavory opinion which the British have regarding mushrooms and mushroom hunters, in their delightful Romance of the Fungus World (1925). Generally, the first association wild mushrooms brings to mind here is "poisonous." The principal edible mushroom most Americans know is the bland Agaricus bisporus (Lange) Sing., or "button mushroom" found in supermarkets. It has little flavor and negligible medicinal value compared with wild species. In fact, it can even be unhealthful in the sense that it may be heavily sprayed with malathion and other pesticides (many commercially cultivated mushrooms are among the most heavily sprayed items in the vegetable section). The button mushroom may also have cancer-causing properties when eaten continuously, though exactly how potent this effect might be in humans is not clear. In recent years other cultivated species such as the oyster mushroom and shiitake have begun to appear in markets.
Happily, however, there are signs that these narrow-minded attitudes in the United States and England are changing and catching up with the rest of the world. The spreading popularity of natural foods is one factor that has helped re-awaken interest in mushrooms and mushroom-hunting. Another factor is the recent growth of the mushroom-export business, which has been boosted by troubles in Europe. Due to acid rain, sprawling development, and industrial accidents such as the one at Chernobyl, millions of acres of mushroom habitat in Europe and Russia have been disturbed, and many species of wild mushrooms are becoming scarce (Cherfas, 1991).
Europe imports thousands of pounds of chanterelles and boletus each year. The high price these traditional gastronomic delights bring creates a good supplementary income for knowledgeable gatherers in the United States. Indeed, wild or home cultivation may soon become viable cottage industries in the Pacific Northwest, which has the forest habitats and substantial rainfall needed for such ventures. Cultivation as a home business may be preferable to the recent problems that are surfacing in the Pacific Northwest among professional and itinerant pickers alike--namely squabbling over mushroom patches on public lands. A newspaper article told of teams of professional pickers using walkie-talkies to coordinate harvests and mentioned that they can become upset when other pickers strayed into what they considered their turf. In response to the increased harvesting pressure, quotas were recently set in the Mt. Hood National Forest (McRae, 1993).
Finally, Japanese products containing LEM, a polysaccharide-rich extract from the shiitake mushroom, and similar extracts from maitake are currently undergoing trials in Japan and the U.S. to test their effectiveness in treating various forms of cancer. They show promise for treating people suffering from various forms of cancer and AIDS and are currently in strong demand in Japan. Commercial shiitake cultivators in the U.S., Canada, and in parts of Asia are decidedly interested in this new potential market and are starting large cultivation efforts, hoping the demand will continue to grow as further scientific studies are conducted. At present, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products from mushrooms may be worth more than 1.2 billion dollars U.S.
Wei Qi Soup for Building Immune Strength
Directions: Fill a pot 2/3 full with purified or spring water, then add:
Simmer until the vegetables are tender, then add miso and spices such as ginger, celery, or fennel seed. Make enough for a few days and store it in the refrigerator.
Indications and Dosage:
During illness, when solid food is not desirable, drink 3-4 cups of the warm broth (add less barley and more water to make broth). For degenerative immune conditions, eat 1-2 small bowls per day, and drink the broth as desired. For autoimmune diseases such as allergies, lupus, diabetes, and hepatitis accompanied by fatigue, weakness, or autoimmune conditions, eat the soup when desired, or drink the broth. This soup can be used upon occasion (1-2 times per week) for general tonification and may help to increase stamina.
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