One measure of the foodie revolution in India is the shift in our attitude to mushrooms.
In part, I think, it was just unfamiliarity. In that era, Indians (even chefs) were not comfortable with mushrooms. Most had been to catering college in the ’60s and ’70s when the only mushrooms you got were canned.
And Indians have long been prejudiced against mushrooms. According to one translation, the Buddha died after eating a poisonous mushroom. (In another version, he was killed by stale meat – but then, Indians like to believe that the Buddha was a vegetarian, even though Buddhists can be beef-eaters.)
But, in this century, the fresh mushroom has finally found acceptance in Indian kitchens. Rare is the restaurant where the chef insists on using salty, canned mushrooms.
And even our sabziwallahs sell many varieties of fresh mushroom. In case you are confused by the vast range of mushrooms (many of them imported from Thailand) on sale at your local sabziwallah, here is a rough guide to what’s available.
The White MushroomCalled Champignons de Paris in France, this is the basic mushroom available everywhere. It has no real flavour but people buy it for the shape, the texture and well, the thought of eating a fresh mushroom.
This is the easiest mushroom to cultivate so there are hundreds of suppliers. Unfortunately your sabziwallah will never tell you where he gets his mushrooms from (“Kasauli say aatay hain, na”) preferring to rely on generalities.
There should be no difference in quality. But, there is. Some of these mushrooms give me a bad stomach. (An allergy, perhaps?) And some tend to give out water the moment they hit the pan.
One producer told me that his rivals (in Delhi and thereabouts) grow them on toxic waste, while the producers who cultivate them in Punjab and Himachal are more careful. I have no idea what the truth is, but be warned: quality can vary.
Brown, Chestnut or Cremini mushrooms
Suppliers don’t always want you to know this but they are exactly the same species as the white mushroom. There are slight variations in terms of strain and age but that is about it.
In my experience however, they have a more pronounced flavour than white mushrooms and are always to be preferred
Portobello Sad to say, these are also the same species as the common white mushrooms. The difference is age. If you let the mushroom grow then it spreads out, becomes flatter and acquires a distinctive flavour.
I like larger mushrooms because of the taste. But to enjoy the flavour, you have to grill them or sauté them in olive oil or butter with herbs. If you chop them up, fill them with cheese, or batter-fry them, then you are wasting your money.
Shiitake We have all eaten this at some time on the other. The shiitake is what the Chinese call the black mushroom. In most Chinese restaurants around the world, chefs use dried shiitake and then rehydrate them in warm water.
The dried shiitake is a source of concentrated umami flavour but the texture is not natural and while you don’t mind strips of shiitake in your hot and sour soup, it is hard to think of it as a fresh vegetable.
Shiitake costs as much as white mushroom in Thailand. So Indian vegetable importers now fly in fresh shiitake from Bangkok and sell them to restaurants and upmarket sabziwallahs.
I like fresh shiitake and substitute them for white mushrooms whenever I can. But some things need to be remembered. They don’t have the concentrated umami oomph of dried shitake. And the ones you get in India are often way past their prime and are frequently overpriced. So proceed with caution.
Porcini As far as I know, you don’t get porcini in India but I was recently assured by friends that a Bombay sabziwallah sells them from time to time.
I am sceptical about this claim but just in case you do come across them, they are the mushrooms the French call ceps (or cepes) and scientists call boletus edulis.
They are huge, meaty, and have a flavour that is unmatched. They are hard to cultivate and are usually gathered wild in the autumn and winter in Europe.
The best porcini can be expensive and the ones that are not good enough to sell fresh end up being dried and sold around the year. The chances are that if you see a porcini risotto on a menu, it is made from dried porcini.
Some chefs, such as my friend Ramon Salto at the Gurgaon Leela, are able to coax flavour out of dried porcini (Ramon does a porcini Spanish omelette), but most chefs are foiled by anything other than the fresh version.
I can see the point of using dried porcini for stock and sauce. But the texture is so wrong that I would not recommend them for any other use.
You also get an Asian (ie Thai) strain of boletus in Asia which is sometimes sold as porcini. It has no flavour, no texture, and is a complete waste of money. Do not be fooled.
Oyster Mushroom This is one mushroom that has a place in Indian cuisine, and turns up in dishes in Nepal and in Kerala. You will see it sold widely these days because it is really cheap to cultivate.
The French call it “the weeper” because it lets out so much water when cooked. I don’t like it and I am not moved by claims that it tastes like an oyster. (It does not.) Steer clear.
Enoki A mushroom that chefs love because it has long, thin stalks and looks great on the plate.
The best way to use it is to stir fry at very high heat very quickly so it retains a crunchy, almost beansprout-like texture. No great flavour but can be delicious sautéed in butter with salt and pepper: but butter makes everything taste good!
And finally I’m a mushroom freak. I don’t necessarily expect you to be one too. But given that there are so many mushrooms available in a market that was till recently, dominated by mushrooms canned with brine, you would have to be crazy not to explore the possibilities.
From HT Brunch, May 31
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