Mushrooms: Mystery No More

GR Sridhar, Endocrine andDiabetes Centre, Vishakhapatnam-530 002.

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Mushrooms have always been mysterious. Shadowy creatures between plants and animals, that appeared suddenly, often in death and decay, in moist, misty places, and disappeared just as suddenly. Mushrooms, associated with other loathsome creatures, the supposedly evil snakes, spiders, owls and bats, have often inspired a mixture of fear and revulsion. Just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with snakes, or spiders, it is our attitudes that colour in evil and violet the mystery and awe mushrooms arouse in some of us.

To reiterate, there is nothing obnoxious about mushrooms. They are fungi, closer to plants than animals. Strange as it may appear now, the mushrooms were for centuries, until the 1700s, the only known form of fungi, as they were visible, dramatically perhaps, but without the need of using a microscope. They may still not be the most numerous nor the most significant group of fungi, but they are the most conspicuous members of fungi. The mushrooms in fact, are a valuable link in the food chain: a part of the sun's enormous energy is captured by green plants, which are in turn fed by animals and thus receive part of the stored energy. When plants and animals die, the energy chain would snap were it not for agents that break up the dead matter and release carbon dioxide and water, to set up the cycle. Fungi and mushroom are this invaluable link in the energy chain whose enzymes break the tough lignin of the wood and scavenge the organic material found in the forest floor.

Mushrooms in antiquity
Undoubtedly mushrooms have been known since antiquity. They were described as the 'oldest art form'. Moreover, they were considered a culinary delicacy for thousands of years.The oldest known fossil mushroom is perhaps described as being trapped in amber about 40 Mya. The ancient Greek and Roman literature have references to mushrooms. The first reference to fungi is found in the records of Euripides (480-406 BC), who reported the unfortunate end of a woman and her family 'strangled by eating them.' Poisonous variety have given mushrooms a deservedly bad name.

Mushrooms were food. The poisonous varieties were also identified. One of the most enduring lullabies of Savaras, the hill tribal people of Andhra Pradesh, goes like this

....Go ye children from your cages
Toil and moil for your wages
Get ye mushrooms as we find
Mind yee, pluck edible kind....

Mushrooms and toadstools: poisonous or not
Distinguishing edible from poisonous mushrooms alas, was, and continues to be difficult. Mycophiles, the connoisseurs of mushrooms as a delicacy, often collect them in the wild. A variety of differentiating features were proposed including, naming the poisonous ones toadstools: those growing in meadows being edible, being able to easily peel off edible mushrooms, bright coloured ones being poisonous, and finally depending on what they do to cats and dogs fed on them. There are no definite points of difference in any of the above tests between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms. Therefore the rule of the thumb to mycophiles is to discard all specimens when in doubt, or better still, to procure mushrooms from modern plantations where their source is not in doubt. Of course, even edible mushrooms can cause indigestion, if one is allergic to them, or when taken in excess. Incorrect cooking, eating post-mature mushrooms, or ingesting with alcohol can also lead to abdominal discomfort.

Mushrooms as food
With human population billowing as rapidly as it is, conventional agriculture is unlikely to keep pace with food requirements. Alternative sources of energy are required if serious food crisis is to be averted. It is here that mushrooms provide a rich addition to the diet. Their nutritional value lies between that of meat and vegetables. As supplements to vegetarian diets, mushrooms have been called 'vegetable meat', both for their nutritive value and the culinary sophistication.

Mycophiles are understandably enamoured of the mushrooms varied texture and fine flavour. Weight for weight, mushrooms have more protein than either potatoes or cabbage. However, can one live on mushrooms alone? It is theoretically possible, but, we must consume more than 200 kilograms of mushrooms a day, that give 1, 500 calories! Forget about subsisting on mushrooms. But they do add variety, flavour, along with supplemental protein and vitamins to otherwise inadequate diets.

The low calorie content and high fibre of mushrooms, as well as lack of sugar and fat when fresh, is a boon for persons on a diet: the obese, the hypertensive and the diabetic. They fill the stomach and give a feeling of satiety; the high fibre slows down absorption of food from the intestines. So, if you are on a diet, have mushrooms on your menu.

Mushrooms are now mainstream food. The United States Department of Agriculture declared September 1994 as the National Mushroom Month. Mushrooms, the Secretary of Agriculture of USA proclaimed, could be 'sliced and sautéed, breaded and fried, diced in sauces or raw in salads...' and called them the 'quintessential finishing touch to any meal'.

I am vegetarian; are mushrooms meat ?

Indians are vegetarian, mainly by compulsion, but quite a few by choice. Some of the latter exclaim ' I am vegetarian. Don't serve me mushroom', says Krishna kumar, Chef, Taj Residency at Visakhapatnam. The rarity of using mushrooms as food, the apparently mysterious source of their origin, their texture, their flavour, combined perhaps with the culiniary skill of expert chefs lends it the suspicion of being meat. But mushrooms are not meat. They are closer to plants. They may not have the green colour of plants and may not be therefore able to manufacture energy on their own. Yet, they are not animals. Purists in biology may debate the point whether they are fully plants or not, still there is unanimity they are not animals. Mushrooms are not yet widely served as food in our country. The concept of mushroom dishes is definitely catching on. 'In a non-metropolis like Visakhapatnam,' avers Krishna kumar, 'you may not get the variety and freshness in mushrooms as in the major cities. But canned mushrooms are available. If freshness is not a criterion, in these days of communication revolution,accessibility is no longer a constraint.' For the Italian food festival which was held here a few weeks ago, packed Italian mushrooms were specially flown in. A variety of Chinese mushrooms are also available.
The canned variety may not compare with the freshness, the flavour and texture of their fresh brothers, but they are an honourable approximation. Once the mushrooms are used extensively, and not only in five star deluxe hotels, the demand would increase and the supply would naturally keep pace.

Rearing mushrooms spans the spectrum from a small kitchen-garden to modest farms,ultimately to high-tech temperature and humidity controlled factories, that export their produce to the Continent and the Americas. Similarly, mushroom menu is as much indigenised to include such delicious dishes as mushroom omlette,mushrooms on toast, mushroom soup, mushroom pakoras, mushroom pulao, mushroom paneer, mushroom samosa and even mushroom pickle.

Mushroom farming
Short of being a mycophile -- collecting mushrooms in the wild, can we get them anywhere else? The answer is yes, fortunately. Most mushrooms reaching our dinner table are cultivated commercially in specially constructed mushroom houses, where the climate is controlled, in terms of humidity and temperature. Beds, consisting of a mixture of manure and straw is layered with soil. The spawn, or the vegetative portion of the fungus is planted on the beds. The spawn are grown without contamination. The spawn spreads over a few weeks, and the mushroom fruiting bodies appear, when they are harvested and transported promptly.

Mushrooms and molecular biology
Advances in molecular biology have not left the mushroom untouched. Molecular biology helps us in the identification and selection of mushroom strains. Hybrid mushrooms can be generated by tinkering with their genes, to produce specimens that have desirable characters, in terms of nutritional value, flavour, or resistance to environmental conditions. Improved mushrooms from the biologists' bench!

Mushrooms after all are now no longer mysterious: they may inspire excitement, fascination and even wonder. Natures oldest art, the food of the Gods, the mushroom promise to be the next marvel after the green revolution. When you next savour the tender soft mushroom in the soup, pakora or pickle, consider yourself lucky. In ancient Rome, the Emperor could have sent you to gaol for infringement into his culinary domain.

Captions of photographs (number of slides given in parentheses)

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