Where do mushrooms grow? I’d thought that wet decomposing leaves and wood are their niche. So I was quite surprised to see them growing out of bare ground in the Rann of Kutch, and almost completely ignoring the few twigs and leaves nearby. A couple of weeks later, I saw the same varieties at the edge of the Thar desert. The Rann is part of the Thar desert, so the commonality did not surprise me. But seeing mushrooms in that habitat took me aback. I had to take photos.
I know a couple of other dedicated fungivores. This tribe is as uncommon in urban India as wine drinkers were twenty years ago. With this tiny tribe I’m trying to figure out whether we can find edible mushrooms. There is a difference between a wine drinker and a mushroom eater: a wrong choice could kill one, but not the other. So the first step is to document the mushrooms that we see, before we go on to try to find whether they are edible. I think I managed to photograph all the ground-living varieties more than once.
As it turned out, this was also an opportunity to learn something new. Mushrooms, as you may know, are the fruiting bodies of fungi. The body of the fungus is a mass of filaments that lives and grows underground or in dying wood. They are neither plant nor animal, but an entirely different kingdom of life. What I was surprised to learn is that fungi grow in all kinds of enviroments: polar valleys and glaciers, deserts and salt flats (aha, for the Rann and the Thar). All that is required seems to be oxygen. It also turns out that understanding the ecological niches they inhabit is an active area of research. The moment you move out of admiring plants and animals, you hit the boundaries of human knowledge!
Monsoon can bring out hidden life in the garden, as I discovered on a walk this weekend. A beginning like this year’s is not routine, but not uncommon either: a couple of days of hard rain followed by a few days of sunshine. On a tree-stump that I have inspected at such times for several years now, I found the familiar bracket mushrooms sprouting (featured photo). Through the next few weeks they will grow into amazing dinner-plate sized bodies. Are they edible? I’ve seen this variety in forests near villages and they are not harvested by locals. In the absence of evidence, I have been cautious and not tried to eat them.
Further on, I found a treasure of a tree which I hadn’t noticed before. Its branches have sprouted mushrooms in this week. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms that we see, and sometimes love to eat, are just the tip of an ecological iceberg. Beneath it all is 90% of the lifecycle, the wonderful web called the mycelium. When they intermingle with the roots of trees, they seem to be symbiotic, exchanging nutrients and signaling molecules with the host. And sometimes they seem to provide a means of communication between plants, even those of different species (A BBC article colourfully names this a wood wide web). It is also possible that the webs of these hidden mycelia determine whether or not a forest supports an invading species of tree.
But these mushrooms that I see on this branch are not the soil growing mushrooms associated with trees which are the staple of forests. Are they among the edible mushrooms native to India which are slowly being identified and marketed? I wish I knew. The wonderful umami taste of mushrooms is widely recognized, and I do not mind adding a couple of new flavours to my food. I was not very surprised to find that they are called ‘vegetarian mutton’ in parts of India as widely separated as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. On this one branch of this single tree, I found three varieties of mushrooms sprouting. Does that mean that the tree is dead, and its decay is being hastened by these saprophytic fungi? Or are these the so-called endophytes, which are symbiotic with the tree? I’m afraid it will take an expert to tell.
Looking at these photos and wondering about them led me to documentary films and other information on a wonderful world which I did not know much about. Apart from these ecological connections, there are new horizons of different kinds. An interesting article told me about the possible industrial uses of the mycelium; among others, that mats of mycelia are being marketed as a alternative to styrofoam in packaging! The next time I inhale the wonderful earthy aroma of cooking mushroom, it will not be just the omelette I’ll be thinking about.
Normally we buy vegetables in small quantities, and use them up in a day or so. But now, in order to keep control over our exposure to large crowds, shopping is less frequent. Some time back we wanted to guard against COVID-19 by disinfecting all produce. Eating soap is not a great idea, so we were certainly not going to washing food in soap. The Family skimmed her expertise and recalled that bacteria and viruses are killed by a solution of salt in water. So now we dunk all produce for about fifteen minutes in salty water. The water can be reused, and salt does not need to be washed off, so this is also a water conserving way of cleaning produce.
On some days our house is full of vegetables being cleaned and dried, chopped and sorted. Since the salt water bath removes bacteria and viruses, we now find that the veggies stay fresh and usable much longer. Bananas and plantain, tindli and tomatoes, everything stays fresh and colourful for several days. Tindli? Does ivy gourd sound more familiar? I didn’t think so. It is after all a rather local vegetable (featured photo), so best to call it by its local name.
We used to be in a desperate rush to use up mushrooms before they rot. Now mushrooms stay fresh longer too. Perhaps the salt water treatment also kills the fungi which sometimes grow on these mushrooms. I know that some people use baking soda and potassium parmanganate, but that would also require more water for post-treatment washing. We wanted the lowest water-use possible, and I think the salt solution works well for that. The Family consulted her old colleagues about this treatment, and found a good consensus of opinion for it.
There are no desperate attempts to refrigerate fresh produce to keep it from spoiling any longer. Everything can now be kept in trays and bowls in sun and air. Also, now that we can keep the veggies for longer, we can wait for good combinations to develop. For example, plantains are not very common at our neighbourhood vendor’s, but when we get it, we already have the other veggies that we know will go well with it. The result has been an explosion of new recipes at home. Lunch is quite a journey of discovery these days.
An act of the parliament in 1951 gave over a list of monuments for preservation to the Archaeological Survey of India. It has been doing this job pretty well for over half a century. Some years back it took upon itself the job of planting gardens around monuments. While this is a wonderful idea, it is executed in typical bureaucratic fashion: top-down without a thought to the local ecology. Dhar is one of the places where it is successful. In one particular property, about which I’ll write later, I was enchanted by the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) whose vines had been planted along the fence to make a wonderful hedge. I grew up in houses where this flowering vine had taken over some corner of a garden. The flowers bud white, then turn successively pink and a pleasantly deep red over the next days. The woody vine is a good choice for a boundary fence, since it grows fairly fast and can be easily draped over a wire fence.
A wide lawn was being tended by a bunch of gardeners. The July rain was sufficient to keep it lush and green, although I suspect that in other seasons this is a water guzzler. Under a spreading kadam tree (Neolamarckia cadamba) I found mushrooms sprouting from the lawn. Mushrooms do not feature in my childhood memories; did I not see any, or did they just not make an impression? But with a camera in hand, I love the varied textures that they present. You can see a yellow kadam flower which has dropped on to one of the mushrooms. Unfortunately, I learnt about mushrooms only from supermarkets, so I give them a wide berth in the wild. Is this one of the poisonous false parasols or the edible parasol, or neither?
Two paces on a large mushroom had been uprooted. I took a closer look at the gills. If I were an expert this would have told me which mushroom I was looking at. I’m not an expert. The only interesting fact which I know about mushrooms is that a significantly large part of the mushroom grows underground, or inside rotten material. The buds which are visible in the form of parasols or brackets are just the fruiting bodies. The underground mycelium branch into this body, through the stalk, and are packed into the gills that you see above. Through these gills they release spores into the surroundings. A friend tells me of a spot in his garden where he finds morels year after year. That is because the underground mycelium remain after the umbrellas are harvested, and send up the fruiting bodies again the next year, to be collected again and eaten.
I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.
Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.
The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.
Khow Suey and various other exotica pass as representative Myanmarese food in restaurants in India. The truth is that these are uncommon as the main meal even in Myanmar. This selective treatment in Indian restaurants is deliberate, because normal food and high cuisine in Myanmar is not so different from eastern Indian food. Without this selective focus it would be very hard for a restaurant in India to sell itself as exotic Burmese. In normal Burmese meals rice is a staple. Beans and vegetables are standard accompaniments, made relatively less spicy than their Indian versions, but otherwise very similar. Meat and fish appear on the plate, again cooked in ways that would pass without comment in India. Myanmar sees widespread use of salads; this is not traditional in India. The pickles are different, but then India has so many kinds of pickles, you would not notice that this is foreign. This is what you see on the plate in the photo here. You can also see that beer is a common aperitif. The papads and the remains of the peanuts which are served with it are not so different from the normal Indian practice. There is a wide choice of drinks available. Many of the sweets are also fairly similar to eastern Indian sweets: candied fruits, and coconut and rawa based sweets similar to the Bengali pitha. In the photo you see a local sweet which turned out to be not so different from an Indian chikki. These similarities are very apparent when you walk through a market.
Since a significant part of our visit to Myanmar was spent along the Irrawaddy river and other water bodies, we ate a lot of fresh water fish. There is a huge variety, just like India used to have before the rise of modern mono-pisciculture. Frying is common, but also many of the preparations steam fish with various ground herbs. Thin curries similar to eastern Indian ways of preparing fish are also widespread. I kept seeing the batter fried prawns which you see in the featured photo all along the Irrawaddy river.
I’ve written earlier about my first impressions of the street food of Myanmar. The striking similarities with India became more apparent as days went by. There is a lot of raw fruit available. Like in India, unripe fruits like mangos and guavas are eaten with salt and spices. You see a vendor in the photo on the left in the panel above. Street vendors sell a variety of sweets as you can see in the middle panel. A lot of this was completely unfamiliar to me. They range from fried pockets to baked and steamed things with the consistency of custard. The photo on the right shows boiled eggs. In most parts of India now the only eggs you see are chicken eggs from battery farms, although I remember much more variety from my childhood. As you can see in the photo above, this variety is still visible in Myanmar: there are boiled duck’s eggs in the lot. The lady also sells Burma cheroots! The flask she is drinking from had green tea.
A particularly Burmese snack was the monbao you see being made in the photo above. The batter which the girl is ladling into a little container is sweetened rice flour. This is then covered with an earthenware pot and baked on the stove in front of her. This stall was extremely popular. Although I wanted to taste this new food, the queue ahead of me was too long. I had the impression that the word monbao is used for a range of tea time sweets.
The pounded mushrooms which you see in the photo above were also new to me. The lady was selling a single variety of mushrooms: the white ones in the bowl near her left hand. She would pound each into the flat brown sheets she has stacked up in front of her. You sprinkle some of the chutney and chopped onions on them and they are ready to eat.
It was interesting that some kinds of Indian food are strong favourites in Myanmar. Many people recommended their favourite place for “palatha” (paratha) and “puti” (puri). I gathered from this that these fried bready stuff do not exist in the local kitchen, but have become hot favourites. The image of Indian food this gives to the locals is less distorted than the Indian image of Khow Suey as standard Burmese food. During my couple of days in the Shan state I asked for Khow Suey once and only got fried noodles with pork. I found that khaw swe is just the Burmese word for noodles.
I saw this scooter parked outside the Manuha temple in Bagan. The sliced guavas hanging from the basket at the back, and the plastic bag full of spices reminded me of my childhood when I would spend my little money on buying treats exactly like this.