Go mushy over mushrooms

The underestimated and unexplored wonder-food revealed!

We have all heard at least one story where somebody was shielded from a monster using a mushroom or a fairy story that depicted a gnome with a mushroom. Which is why, it is no surprise that mushrooms are a hit with children as well. “Mushooom, mushooom” squeals my two-year-old in delight on sighting them in a stir-fry that we order at a restaurant. Thereafter starts a sibling war between my five-year-old and his ‘baby sister’ as they try to finger pick the mushrooms from the dish. To broker some peace I offer to order a mushroom dish for them from which I hope to get my fair share too. Yes, that’s us—the mushroom loving trio, the bond that binds us together and so on and so forth. For those wondering what about the poor dad’s share—well, let’s just say, mushroom isn’t his choice of veggie. But wait a minute, technically it isn’t a vegetable—it is rather a kind of fungi! Are you squeamish at this discovery?

That’s right, though they are sold alongside vegetables; mushrooms are actually the edible fruits of fungi.  Mushrooms have been hugely popular in cuisines around the world since ancient times. Hence, with its buzzing stir, they are a recent addition in the Indian cuisine as well. With it gaining popularity among the Indian masses, mushroom cultivation is now seen as a lucrative option. The climate in India favours its growth, and it is a crop that can be grown all through the year since it is grown indoors.

Health quotient

Mushrooms, like all vegetables and fruits have their fair share of healthy nutrients. Although the nutrient content varies widely in the different varieties, they are mostly a good source of protein, fibre, B vitamins, potassium, and selenium and to some extent copper. Second to cod liver oil, mushrooms are the only source to contain vitamin D in edible form. They are also a gift for the health conscious as they are naturally low in calories, fat and sodium. Of late, extensive research is being conducted to validate the anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties of mushrooms. But more concrete findings are required  before elevating mushrooms to the ‘superfood’ group.

Mushrooms have manifested in multiple folklores as being poisonous. However, experts confer that mushrooms purchased from markets are mostly safe. In fact, they are safe to consume by pregnant women as well as kids. Out of the 14,000 documented varieties of mushrooms around 2,000 species of mushrooms are edible. Out of these, only the white button mushroom [the most commonly used ones], the oyster mushroom [oyster or fan shaped], the paddy straw mushroom [dark brown in colour and also known as Chinese mushroom], milky mushroom and more recently the Shiitake mushroom are grown in India. These are now hugely popular and are revered as a ‘gourmet’ food.

The cause for concern is for those who enjoy mushroom hunting. Mushroom hunting is a popular hobby in the west among mushroom lovers, wherein people go into forests to pick up wild mushrooms, typically for eating. Mistaking a poisonous mushroom for a benign one could naturally become fatal if consumed. Hence, without much knowledge of identifying mushrooms, an enthusiast must not divulge in hunting. So if you aren’t the one to forage into a forest to pick up your own mushrooms, then you aren’t likely to get poisoned from them.

Buying and storing

Mushrooms are very delicate and require extra care while buying, storing and cooking. Here are some
points to keep in mind:

  • When buying, choose those that are white with no or few brown spots.
  • Take them out of the plastic wrapping, put them into paper bags and store in the refrigerator. Use them within a day or two of purchase.
  • Before cooking, remove any visible mud and then wash them well in water. Do not soak them as they tend to absorb water.
  • When cooking them with other vegetables, add them at the end as they cook very quickly. 
  • When adding to gravies or curries, add it when the dish is almost done. Add the sliced mushrooms, mix and switch off the stove. Cover and keep aside and the mushroom will cook in the heat of the dish.

Mushrooms are versatile, have an umami or savoury taste. They can be cooked light and delicate or robust and earthy. I tend to incorporate them into dishes like pulav, noodles, bhurjis, stir-fry and fried rice or even everyday vegetables just to make it more appealing to the kids. A certain motif of urban legend has been prevalent since ancient Egyptian times—mushrooms confer immortality or restore life. I cannot second that but I can ascertain that it is a healthy and scrumptious underestimated superfood. And for those who haven’t tried mushrooms I hail, “Try them!”

This was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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