I've been learning a lot about the health benefits of various tree fungi, including reishi (typically known as Ganoderma lucidum, though the native species is Ganoderma oregonese), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus), and red-belted conk (Formitopsis pinicola). Reishi, for example, is held in very high esteem in many Eastern medicines as being a rather miraculous-sounding treatment for many ailments, including helping your immune system recognize and fight cancerous growths. Turkey tails have been approved by the FDA as a treatment for cancer, and the red-belted conk is used for a whole host of things.
It's all good stuff. These fungi are fairly prolific in the Pacific Northwest (especially red-belted conks!) and are growing on dead trees. Like apples, fungi are the fruiting bodies of the organism-the mycelium is found inside the host trees. These fungi are the mycelium's mode of reproduction; picking them does not harm the organism itself as long as you do it with caution. It's a good idea to wait until the varieties are mature so they have had a chance to spore, and always make sure you have a proper identification of each and are absolutely positive in your ID. If you'd like to purchase mushrooms instead, Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source!
So how do you gain the benefits from these mushrooms? Several ways. There are different constituents that are extracted in different ways- some suggest that the best way to make medicine from these mushrooms is a dual-extract. In this method you make a concentrated mushroom tea with water and then tincture the rest of the mushroom in alcohol to extract the non-water-soluble stuff too. But either way, you have to process them somehow- the cell walls in these woody mushrooms are too tough to be broken down by our digestive system and have to be softened by cooking or tincturing. When making mushroom tea, simply add the pieces of fresh or dried fungi to a pot of simmering water and let barely simmer for at least 40 minutes, longer if possible. Then strain and enjoy! You may want to add some sweetener as these mushroom teas can be bitter. Some friends suggest putting the fungi and water in a crock pot on a low setting overnight for a strong brew in the morning.
Also worth noting: many medicinal mushroom products on the market today are made out of ground up tree fungi. This works for some of the more tender varieties such as lions mane, but your body has a hard time breaking down more woody varieties like reishi or red-belted polypore. Therefore these preparations are inefficient and don't give you all of the medicinal values of these fungi! If you want to extract more out of them, you'll have to make a tea.
But here's my issue: if it takes 40 minutes to prepare a cup of tea, am I really going to do it very frequently? Probably not. Am I going to get my family members to commit to doing that for themselves? Unlikely. So I wanted to figure out an "instant" preparation method for these medicinal mushrooms that would allow my family and I to gain the benefits within minutes.
Here's the solution: Rice. Many of the websites about medicinal mushrooms recommend using your mushroom tea as a base for a broth for soup or for the water to cook your rice in. Rice is a particularly good way to go, since it absorbs liquids well. Turns out, it can absorb them so well that you can then dry the tea cooked in mushroom rice and powder to it to make an effective preparation of mushroom medicine, according to Ja from Fungi For the People, a local Eugene company teaching people about medicinal mushrooms and how to grow them yourself. I couldn't find any more resources on the internet describing this technique, but it makes sense to me.
So here's what I did: I sliced up my reishi and red-belted conks that I had harvested myself, and placed them in a pot of water. I let it simmer on low for hours (maybe 6 or 7?) until the liquid levels had reduced to a cup and a half or so. I strained it, reserving the fungi chunks. Then I measured out 1 c. rice per 1.5 cups of the concentrated mushroom tea and cooked a pot of rice according to the directions on the package. I then spread the tea-infused rice out in my dehydrator overnight. I then repeated the process, using the reserved pieces of fungi and the now-dehydrated rice. I figured I might as well do a double-strength preparation. When the rice was dry the second time, I ground it finely in my herb grinder, then sifted it well.
Then I added another medicinal mushroom, Goats' Beard (which is in the hericium family, as is Lion's Mane.) This mushroom is not as woody or tough as some of the other medicinal mushrooms, so it shouldn't have to steep as long. I just ground it up into a powder and added it to my mix.
Then I mixed my cocoa mix: 2 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup cocoa, a pinch salt, 1/3 c. mushroom rice powder, and about 2 Tbs. powdered hericium.
To use, take 2-3 Tbs. cocoa mix per cup of hot water or milk, and mix well. This mix is on the less-sweet side, so if you have a big sweet tooth you may want to add additional sweetener. I like my cocoa more bitter, so I like this blend. The rice leaves some thick gruel in the bottom of your cup, like traditional Mexican hot chocolates made with the addition of corn flour. I like it and find it hearty and filling. It's a great warm up after a winter ski!
The family members I gave it to liked it as well, noting that you can taste the mushrooms but only subtley. They liked that it wasn't too sweet and that it was thicker as well. It's all about preference- if your main reason to drink cocoa is for the sugar blast, you may want to adjust the mixture to your liking. On that note, feel free to use other sweeteners such as maple sugar or coconut sugar if you're avoiding sugarcane. Just make sure it is finely ground so it dissolves well. If you don't like the earthy mushroom flavor you can disguise it a little more with the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg, hot pepper, or other spices. I packaged my mix up in little glass jars and gave them as Christmas presents:
And there you have it: medicinal mushroom cocoa. Hope you enjoy!
Worth noting: it's difficult to find the good, reputable sources about medicinal mushrooms among the marketing and wishful thinking, but at least I found some starting points. This is a great run-down of many of the medicinal mushroom varieties. As always, make sure you are positive of your identification before using wild mushrooms (or any wild food) in your own kitchen. Do your own research and decide if this treat is for you! :)
This article from Naturalnews.com discusses some of the health benefits of reishi. Check it out for yourself, but here's an excerpt:
"Scientific research indicates that the major actions of medicinal mushrooms are stimulating the immune system and protecting against cardiovascular disease, free radicals, mutagens, and toxins. Most medicinal mushrooms contain polysaccharides (complex sugar molecules) called beta-glucans that increase RNA and DNA in the bone marrow where immune cells, like lymphocytes, are made. The combination of compounds in mushrooms is believed to target the immune system and aid in neuron transmission, metabolism, and the transport of nutrients and oxygen. Three mushroom varieties -- reishi, shiitake, and maitake -- have been studied intensively and have proven to possess strong medicinal properties. All mushrooms must be cooked to get the nutritional value. The cell walls cannot be digested unless they are tenderized by heat.
Prescription For Dietary Wellness by Phyllis A Balch, page 167"