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Wine & Dine
June 15, 2020

Shroom to Grow

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by The Mushroom Company

Through his Mumbai-based endeavour, The Mushroom Company, Rohhaan Gawde is out to promote the multi-variety fungus and its numerous health and agricultural advantages. Verve gets the lowdown on this underrated source of nutrients

Under lockdown, I scavenge in my pantry for forgotten ingredients, hitting the jackpot on discovering a trove of dehydrated shiitake mushrooms. I had all but forgotten about these beauties during bountiful times. But now, with uncommon ingredients hard to come by, they fill my soul with delight. As I open the glass jar that they had been in for months, an almost meaty aroma hits, and soon enough they are simmering away in a decadent stock that adds luscious flavour to pasta cooked perfectly al dente. The umami flavour of shiitake is unmatched and serves to remind me of how much I love most edible “shrooms”. Button, crimini, portobello, oyster and, of course, my favourite — shiitake.

Growing up, I was entranced by storybooks with illustrations of mushrooms, the invariably bright red, white-dotted mushrooms with faeries and gnomes squatting atop or under them. It was only much later that the fantasy mushrooms in my mind morphed into the real ones on the kitchen counter and, always a food-lover, the veritable smorgasbord of their shape, colour and taste left me enchanted.

Mushrooms, considered vegetables for culinary purposes, are actually fungi that thrive in shaded areas, get their nutrition from dead or living plants, produce spores spread by wind and have little use for sunlight since they produce no chlorophyll. And yet they are loaded with fibre, zinc, vitamins and minerals: the nutritional benefits depend on the type of mushroom. They are fat-free, cholesterol-free, rich in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound selenium, low in carbohydrates and add protein to a vegetarian diet. Button mushrooms in particular are rich in vitamin D, and are among the few non-animal sources for it.

The deliciousness of mushrooms was known by the ancient Romans who considered it the “food of the gods”. Hieroglyphs discovered in Ancient Egypt reveal that they were linked to immortality and only royalty ate them. Ancient Greece had unearthed this delicious fungus as well. Chinese herbal medicine texts have mentioned the health value of mushrooms for centuries. Medicinal mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps (the last not technically a mushroom but a medicinal fungus) have long been used for boosting immunity and fighting a variety of ailments. Their therapeutic qualities are being increasingly researched and they are being added to teas, coffees, elixirs, pills and powders, while ongoing trials endeavour to extend their use to products from skin care and vegan leather to the creation of ethanol fuel, used as an additive to gasoline.

Mumbai’s own mushroom provider, since 2014, offers a host of gourmet varieties that have been sustainably cultivated in local farms, as well as a seasonal indigenous assortment foraged in the wild in different Indian states. Further, the company ensures that the waste is managed in a sustainable manner, by recycling the spent substrate and turning it into compost for use by farms and wineries. It also provides grow kits and consultations. The Mushroom Company’s founder, Rohhaan Gawde, is passionate about spreading the news on what mushrooms can do for you. Verve hears him out….

What turned you into a mushroom enthusiast?
I wasn’t interested in fungi at all until I saw them growing in nature while out camping during my college days. I observed a patch of fairy ring (mushroom patch), and I decided to look further into the fungi world by gathering information on how they grow, the different species, and so on. I came across a mycologist Paul Stamets; I call him my “mushroom guru”. His books and lectures on fungi sparked my curiosity. Mushrooms are not animals, or plants; the fact that they have their own taxonomic kingdom fascinated me to explore further. I started growing them on an experimental basis at home by using paper waste and other organic waste. I had my first set of self-grown mushrooms after almost a month and when cooked, they were amazing. I call them “Earth’s Meat”. After travelling to villages in Himachal Pradesh, where seasonal cultivators were earning enough to survive, I decided to take this up as a profession.

What are the conditions under which mushrooms grow? Do you source from farms as well?
What we normally refer to as a “mushroom” is actually a fruit of a much larger organism which usually grows underground, or inside tree trunks and stumps. The mycelium, as it is called, grows from spores that land in nature in the right conditions. We grow commercial, edible and medicinal species by controlling the required environment in a shed or room. There are over 50,000 species of mushrooms, including molds and yeasts. Various types are hallucinogenic, one to two per cent of species are poisonous, while others are used for their medicinal properties.

To germinate a certain type of mushroom spore/mycelia, we have to provide a rich nutrient environment, while keeping away every other organism, removing diseases and competition for nutrients. The most commonly cultivated varieties in India are white button, cremini and portobello (Agaricus Bisporus), shiitake (Lentinula Edodes), oyster (Pleurotus spp.), milky mushrooms (Calocybe Indica), paddy straw mushrooms (Volvariella spp.), Lion’s Mane (Hericium spp.), wood-ear or tree ear (Auricularia spp.). India is also efficient in growing a few medicinal species like reishi mushroom (Ganoderma Lucidum) and cordyceps militaris. A few exotic species like morels, termitomyces and puffball, are foraged during the season.

The Mushroom Company acts as a technology provider and undertakes projects to cultivate mushrooms on a commercial scale (oyster, milky, shiitake, king oyster). We also provide training and farm tours for a few varieties that can be grown easily at home as a hobby, for self-consumption. Each type of mushroom grows in a different environment, and it is important to maintain relative humidity and temperature. Each variety has a different harvest time; the fastest is the oyster mushroom which can grow in 15 days from the date of inoculation.

We purchase them from our consulting projects, which are grown under our observation because this helps us to maintain the quality parameters. Our mushrooms are available in hypermarkets like Reliance Fresh Signature stores, Nature’s Basket, Foodhall, Big Bazaar, etc.

How do you ensure that you minimise waste as well as energy usage?
Growing mushrooms is a unique blend of recycling organic waste into most sustainably produced foods. Because of this recycling of other agricultural crops and byproducts, mushroom farms have a smaller environmental footprint than almost any other type of farm. A big part of the mushroom composting process is combining used wheat or paddy straw for making the substrate. This makes the mushroom industry a perfect partner for other agricultural operations. Our mushroom projects generate a virtually inexhaustible supply of a co-product, spent mushroom substrate (SMS). This is the unutilised substrate that the mushroom mycelium leaves after harvesting. We sell the SMS to nearby farmers who use it as organic manure and plant substrate component, for enhancing nitrogen efficiency.

Can a novice grow mushrooms at home for self-consumption? How?
Anyone can grow mushrooms at home. Oyster mushrooms are the easiest species to grow. Obtain spawn (mushroom seeds) for your species of choice. Decide what material (substrate) you want to grow your mushrooms on. Treat your substrate of choice. Treatments include pasteurisation, sterilisation and a lime bath. Inoculate your substrate with the spawn. Place your inoculated substrate in an environment with the recommended conditions for colonisation (25-27 degrees Celsius). Allow the substrate to become fully colonised by the mushroom mycelium (called “the spawn run”). When the little mushrooms (primoidia) first appear (called pinning), put the substrate with primoidia in an environment with the recommended conditions to promote fruiting. This will mean controlling temperature, light, humidity, and airflow that your chosen species prefers. Harvest your mushrooms, ideally, just before spores are released.

It’s possible to get mushroom coffee and mushroom tea. How are they used? What are the benefits?
Mushroom coffee sounds like a really bizarre combination of organic Arabica coffee and medicinal mushroom extracts (ganoderma, cordyceps, chaga). But, this fungi-focused coffee is very trendy at the moment, especially in Europe and America. When you drink mushroom coffee there are no mushrooms floating in it and, no, it does not taste like mushrooms, but you get all of the benefits of coffee and of mushrooms. Coffee energises by stimulating the central nervous system and adrenal glands. Combining that with the more balanced cellular energy support of medicinal mushrooms can result in balanced stimulation while only using half the amount of caffeine found in a regular cup of coffee.

Mushroom tea is made from medicinal mushroom varieties like chaga, reishi and cordyceps. These are best known for their potential immune-boosting benefits, guarding against harmful bacteria, toxins and viruses that can make you sick. These natural substances, sometimes called adaptogens, are often used in herbal medicines to help balance the body. The active components are made into a powder, which is then put into a tea bag or something similar, for steeping.

Mushrooms have been used as the bases for supplements and as immunity boosters. Do you supply mushrooms for medicinal purposes? How are they beneficial?
Yes of course. The Mushroom Company supplies dehydrated medicinal mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps besides fresh gourmet mushrooms.

According to the National Cancer Institute, mushrooms may help prevent certain types of cancers. Besides, the choline in mushrooms can help with memory as well as muscle movement while the stem of the shiitake mushroom has proven to be a great source of beta-glucans that can help in regulating the body’s metabolism.

Which are the most coveted indigenous species of mushrooms? How can one acquire foraged mushrooms?
Wild mushrooms are season specific and picked by locals; the people with the most knowledge of wild mushrooms are the ones who rely not on science but the traditional wisdom passed on from one generation to the next. Ethnic groups and tribal communities have for centuries entered the heart of forests knowing precisely when and where to look, to find a particular variety of mushroom.

In the culinary and medicinal worlds, they are highly sought after for their very exotic nature, making the foraging and selling of the fungi a huge business during the golden period when they are available.

In Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Goa they sprout in plenty, thanks to the perfect climatic conditions of humidity and moisture during the monsoons as well as the abundance of soil enriched with rotten dry leaves and natural waste.

I have learnt these indigenous techniques of identification of mushrooms from forests to sacred groves, lateritic scrub to orchards, plantations to bamboo, even residential locations, kitchen gardens and termite-infested regions, which are a veritable treasure trove of mushrooms. We coordinate with many reliable locals from different parts of India and procure the foraged ones like wood-ears, puffball, morels and termitomyces. We post on Instagram or Facebook whenever they are available, ideally post the monsoons.

What is your favourite way to cook mushrooms? Do you have any tips?
My favourite way of enjoying mushrooms is to pan-fry them with butter. Mushrooms on toast can be enjoyed at any mealtime and can be whipped up with minimal effort and time.

Cooking tips: One, you need high heat; not the highest, as that would burn everything, but high enough to sear the mushrooms and not steam them. I usually use medium or medium-high, but it depends on your stove. Two, you do need more fat than you’d normally use, so generously cover the bottom of the pan. I prefer butter or vegan butter, but oil can also be used, in which case I would use a bit of butter at the end for flavour. And now for the main tip: do not stir the mushrooms! Add them to the pan with the melted butter, stir once and then forget about them. Depending on the amount of mushrooms, size of the pan and your stove, it could be 5 or 10-15 minutes.

Is it possible to produce meat substitutes from mushrooms?
Fungi-based meats are created mostly in the laboratory in a process that almost completely bypasses agriculture. The key component is mycelium of Fusarium venenatum. However, one can use minced mushrooms by binding them with corn flour to make patty.

How are mushrooms used in skincare and to produce vegan leather? What is Muskin leather?
Today, even mainstream companies are using mushroom extracts in their formulations, due to their detoxifying, hydrating and anti-ageing benefits.

Muskin is a “mushroom-skin” material. It is made from fungus spores of phellinus ellipsoideus, a kind of gigantic mushroom. It’s a new, real vegan material and it’s not synthetic or polluting either.

What does the future bring?
The future may be grown from mushrooms! Apart from their high nutritional value, many companies have started using the mushroom mycelium as a building material to make furniture, bricks, packaging molds, leather etc.

Since many foods like coffee, chocolate and wheat-based products have a naturally occurring bitter flavour, the sweet taste of sugar is typically used to mask the bitterness and make things taste better. Mushroom mycelium is a flavourless molecule that blocks out bitter tastes, thus allowing companies to cut back on sweeteners by eliminating the need to use sugar as a masking agent. Mushrooms have often been referred to as the “food of the gods” because of their various hallucinogenic properties and other effects. One must be extremely cautious when eating mushrooms and know exactly what kind they are.

Do you feel that given India’s climate, for instance with the monsoons coming in for four months, this indoor cultivation method you employ is proving more sustainable and consistent?
Mushrooms are grown commercially in a controlled environment for a consistent supply where the cultivator spends money on the infrastructure. If one wants to be dependent on nature, then the monsoons and winters are the best time to grow them.

How far will mushrooms change the Indian diet? For the better?
Mushrooms are often considered only for their culinary uses because they are packed with flavour-enhancers and have gourmet appeal, which makes them popular with young people. Mushrooms are an important commodity worldwide, and the consumption trends are increasing every year especially with the rising demand for meat substitutes, followed by growing consumer preferences towards vegan food, which definitely augurs well for the Indian mushroom market.

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