Mushrooms – you either love ’em or hate ’em! Those of us who fall into the former category have reason to smile as more varieties of edible mushrooms begin to find a place on restaurant menus and on shelves at Bangalore’s specialty gourmet stores.
So what are mushrooms, exactly? Wikipedia says they are “fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source.” Me? I think they’re the next best thing to meat! That’s because mushrooms are very umami. “Umami”, the much touted ‘fifth taste’, indicates the presence of naturally-occurring free amino acids called glutamates. It is best described as a pleasant “savory”, “meaty” or “brothy” taste that makes your mouth water. In other words, “deliciousness”. Mushrooms, with their high glutamate content, are indeed delicious.
Types of Mushroom
Although botanists classify the 10,000 known types of mushrooms by how they “feed” and therefore grow, all edible mushroom species fall into one of two broad categories: “cultivated” or “wild“. Wild mushrooms are almost impossible to cultivate, and must be found and picked in the wild, making them harder to come by and therefore more expensive. Commercially cultivated mushrooms – your regular ol’ plain-vanilla varieties – on the other hand, are available year-round in most parts of the world. These include:
- Button, cremini, and portobello mushrooms (bot. Agaricus Bisporus): These are the same variety, harvested at different ages and stages of maturity. Button mushrooms are white, small, and tender; cremini are darker and a little larger, with a richer flavor; and portobellos are very large, meaty, and firm in texture.
- Oyster mushrooms (bot. Pleurotus Ostreatus): Fan-shaped, cream-colored ‘shrooms that grow on wood (or even in your refrigerator!) and have a mild, anise-like aroma. Favored for use in stir fries since the cap is thin and cooks quickly.
- Shiitakes (bot. Lentinula Edodes): Well-known for their many health benefits, shiitakes have a rich earthy flavor akin to that of wild mushrooms. Shiitakes contain lentinan, an immuno-stimulant used to treat cancer.
- Enokitakes (bot. Flammulina Velutipes): These long, thin, white mushrooms with tiny caps grow in clusters and are often called “golden needle” mushrooms. Crunchy with a delicate, somewhat fruity flavor, they are best eaten raw or only lightly cooked.
Wild mushrooms making their appearance in dried or fresh form in Bangalore include:
- Morels (bot. Morchella): With their distinctive crenelated caps, morels range in color from creamy to almost-black. The darker they are, the smokier their flavor. In India, morels are found in Kashmir, and are known as “gucchi”.
- Porcini mushrooms (bot. Boletus Edulis): Italy’s favorite mushroom. Recognizable by their thick, bulbous stems, porcinis are nuttier in flavor than most other mushrooms. Their flavor intensifies significantly when they are dried.
- Chanterelles (bot. Cantharellus Cibarius): Funnel-shaped and yellowish-orange, chanterelles contain high quantities of carotene, essential for healthy vision.
How To Cook Them
Mushrooms are incredibly healthy; they are low in sodium, fat, and calories, contain anti-oxidants, and provide a rich source of protein. So what do you need to know in order to introduce them into your diet?
First, select mushrooms that are firm to the touch, are uniformly colored and have a slight sheen to them without being slimy. Rinse them quickly but thoroughly (never soak them – they will absorb too much water and get mushy), and refrain from peeling them – you’d be discarding many nutrients as well as altering their texture. Cut them just before you plan to use them, because they discolor easily. Also, be aware that mushrooms have a water content of 70 to 90 percent. This means that once you cook them, they reduce considerably in volume.
In order to cook them correctly and intensify their flavor: refrain from overcrowding your pan, always cook them uncovered, using low – not high – heat, and wait patiently until most of the water has evaporated. Oh, and avoid mixing wild mushrooms with cultivated species in recipes. The milder flavors of the wild varieties will be completely overwhelmed, and you will have wasted your money.
Where To Try Them
If you’re looking to sample some of these varieties without having to source or cook them yourself, however, Bene, at the Sheraton Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway is currently hosting The Mushroom Fiesta, a mushroom showcase. Here, each of the 15 dishes on a menu created specially by Chef Béla Rieck can be ordered with your choice of mushroom (they’re featuring morels, buttons, chanterelles, oysters, porcini, and shiitakes.) You get to see, touch, and smell the mushrooms before you order, and if you’re not sure which mushroom would taste best with a particular dish, Chef Rieck or his team members will happily drop by your table to chat and share their knowledge of mushrooms with you.
[Disclosure: I was invited to a preview of The Mushroom Fiesta and did not pay for this meal.] I sampled a hearty shiitake capuccino (Rs.695) and a sinfully rich and satisfying open-faced lobster ravioli with morels in a cream sauce (Rs. 1880). Yes, I know that’s pricey, and no, I didn’t have to pay – but if I had paid, I would have thought it was worth every single rupee. I had to refrain from licking my plate clean, and the portion size was so generous that I couldn’t move an inch for a good half-hour post-lunch. I also spent a short while chatting with Chef Rieck, who hails from Germany. I’m still not sure which I enjoyed more – the food or the conversation. Either way, I’m going back before The Mushroom Fiesta ends on August 24. Gotta get me some beef tenderloin with foie gras and chanterelles…