What is it about mushrooms? They neither fall into the vegetable category nor derived from animal sources but grow from spores developing over decomposing organic matter. Mushrooms had been the subject of folklore in Europe for many centuries and are a staple in many countries of the Far East like China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. However, mainstream Indian cooking was unacquainted and uncomfortable with these very fine and delicate fungi until about ten years ago.
But a welcome change is very much visible now, as chefs across India have started experimenting with and incorporating mushrooms in various forms of Indian cuisine. I myself am a mushroom fanatic and love all kinds of edible fungi. Before going further, let me analyse why there had never been a better time to enjoy these mysterious yet fabulous species.
The lockdown has its tragic stories and it has changed the way we used to look at things, our behaviour, our habits, our relationships and the way we eat. Now that for many of us, work from home has become an inseparable routine, we look forward to dinner as the most coveted event of the day. Delivery segment and Cloud Kitchens are burgeoning and so is home cooking. Many of us in the industry had written obituaries of this segment citing the usual argument; nobody has the time to cook any longer. Whereas, we would go to a restaurant or order from a delivery service, we are now rediscovering ourselves by cooking at home and enjoying the fun part of the stay-at-home experience.
It has come with some revelations- (a) home cooking is the cheapest option of the three. Even if you abandon the humble roti-sabzi-dal fare of our daily lives and splurge on some expensive ingredients, you will end up spending much less than opting for delivery or eating out; (b) import supply chains have been majorly disrupted due to lockdown. If you were accustomed to buying fancy ingredients which were imported from abroad more often than not, you need to be more flexible now and have to adapt. This means you have to look for Indian options.
During the early years of my career with Taj Bengal, “English Vegetables” (well, we Indians prefer to call any foreign material “English”- probably a hangover from our colonial past) used to be imported directly from Singapore- red and yellow bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, all kinds of exotic lettuce, broccoli, herbs like rosemary, sage, parsley, lemon grass, etc. and bok choy, watercress and of course mushrooms like Button, Enoki, Shitake, Portobello and lots more. By the time those reached us, half the goods were spoiled due to heat or negligent handling at the cargo terminal. But things changed over the years with the boom in the restaurant industry with international chains setting foot here. We no longer needed to import directly from faraway lands but started purchasing from the local vendors who sold these products. This addressed the spoilage issue, but the rates remained still very high.
Many specialist producers who were reliant on orders from restaurants went bankrupt as orders dried up with the onset of the pandemic. But, many more have now moved away from supplying the B2B segment and are selling directly to consumers instead. So, for them, this happens to be a boon in disguise. They are surprised that there is a vast home market for their goods. People are ready to pay more than they were earlier because home cooking with high quality Indian ingredients is still a lot cheaper than eating food cooked somewhere else.
Honestly, I am astonished how great this boom is. Traditional barriers have been broken and availability is no more a problem; right from vegetables, to meat (you can order top quality meat products from Artisanal Meats, MeisterWurst) to young wines. These suppliers were always there, I guess. They just never thought of connecting with the consumers and we didn’t know they were there.
I was reading an article by Vir Sanghvi, the renowned journalist and an erudite food writer, following which I checked myself to satisfy my obsession with mushrooms. Achintya Anand, a former chef now runs an urban farm- Krishi Cress at Chattarpur on the outskirts of Delhi. I got some mushrooms delivered and must admit, those were far better than the imported varieties available in any shop in Delhi or Mumbai. He used to supply high-end restaurants till the country was hit by the pandemic. He diverted, selling his produce online (krishicress.com) directly to individual consumers and has never looked back since. He has tied up with small farmers and has come to know how dependent these poor farmers are on a chain of middlemen which prevents them from supplying the best quality. Anand also encourages his customers to tour the farm to test his produce and understand farming techniques.
It is pertinent to mention here why strawberries grown in India are never sweet and lack flavour. The problem lies with harvesting. Strawberries are picked up too early by the farmers because of the duration between picking and its availability in shops traversing through a host of profiteering middlemen. As a result the sugars do not develop properly.
Sumit Sharan had developed a large and loyal client base among the top restaurants till the lockdown hit. His venture, Shroomery now sells directly to consumers and he was never happier. Almost all kinds of mushrooms from the humble Button to Oyster, King Oyster, Enoki, Porcini, Shimeji and those plump umbrella-like Portobello are available for purchase online (you can order from Instagram@shroomery.in). He also sources Shitake and Morels from small farmers all over India and keeps quality high and prices lower than in shops.
For the last few months I have gorged on mushrooms like never before. I tried the Portobello mushrooms from Krishi Cress and they were of superlative quality with full-bodied umami flavour. My wife often makes an excellent relish with halved Portobello, bacon, sautéed onion rings, burnt garlic and ripe tomatoes. You can have it as a relish or an accompaniment. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. There is no mushroom as versatile as the white Button mushrooms. These mushrooms are used to their full potential in Punjabi cuisine if we talk about Indian cooking. Khumb Hara-pyaz (mushrooms cooked with spring onions), Dhingri Matar (mushrooms with green peas), Tandoori Mushrooms are a few examples. Mushroom vol-au-vents have become quite the rage as starters in traditional Indian banquets. Use your imagination and you can never go wrong with Button mushrooms.
Another of my favourites is Shitake. These are used fresh or dried in Chinese cuisine. The Chinese mostly prefer the dried version, soaks them in warm water for the flavours to develop and then use it for cooking. Shitake mushrooms when cooked have that soft crunchy texture coupled with a beautiful earthy flavour which enhances the taste of any dish manifold. Besides Shroomery which supplies the fresh variety, Sing Cheung Brothers of Kolkata supplies the dried version all over India and the quality is just as good as the imported ones. Enoki mushrooms are those with a long stalk and a small cap which are used mainly in Japanese cuisine. They do not have a flavour of their own but absorb the flavours of other ingredients, somewhat like tofu. Morels or Gucchi are highly sought-after mushrooms which grow in the wild and are prohibitively expensive. They can also be grown under controlled conditions. Morels are easily identifiable by their honey-combed caps. They are mostly used in Italian and French cuisine but can be used in Indian cuisine also, especially in varieties of pulaos and biryanis. I had had a wonderful Gucchi Biryani at Punjab Grill restaurant the menu for which was designed by the legendary restaurateur Jiggs Kalra.
Oyster mushroom is my take for stir-frying with masala sausages (pork of course; to me, chicken sausage is an abomination) preferably the Goan ones. You can use chopped Oyster mushrooms with your sabzi as well. King Oyster mushrooms (very different from Oyster mushrooms) are great for pasta and risotto. I blended chopped King Oyster with sutki machh bata (a Bengali pate-like relish made from dried fish) and found it quite unique and amazing. Often, I would use it as a sandwich spread. Those not-Bengalis who have a sturdy stomach and a robust nose with an affinity for the smelly stuff can definitely try this recipe.
All this is very exhilarating for blokes like me who had to keep themselves satisfied with Button mushrooms only. Or, if you dared to visit the INA market in Delhi to get hold of some fancy and fantastic fungi, you had to make sure to stitch that huge hole in your pocket when you got back home.
The pandemic proved catastrophic for the human race. But, let us take the positive takeaways from this uncertainty. So, let us rejoice- we are reliving the fun of cooking at home with the finest and freshest ingredients, all “Produced in India”.