Everybody is familiar with mushrooms. They are a common sight. They sprout just about everywhere -- gardens, forests, rotting wood, live wood, soil, an unnoticed or forgotten corner of your rooftop -- and you can add to this list numerous more locations.
Often, they are treated with a sort of neglect. Sometimes, they are given a momentary muse; curious-looking little 'creatures' that they are, showing up in various shapes and sizes and colours. 'Banger chhata' (frogs’ umbrella), we say, owing to the umbrella shape they have.
Many of us wrongly associate mushrooms with plants. Mushrooms are actually fungi, and fungi have a kingdom of their own. Mushrooms neither belong to the plant kingdom nor do they fall under the terrain of Kingdom Animalia.
The idea of mushrooms as a food is an ancient one. However, in our country, the notion of eating mushrooms is a fairly new one. Just a couple of decades ago, edible mushrooms did not make it to the league of popular foods. Even today, they are not exactly a 'mainstream' food. But the mushroom's reputation is spreading steadfastly.
With that, the notion of mushrooms mainly being used just as a side or a topping or an ingredient in a greater dish is also changing. Mushrooms, by their own right, are enough to make many delicacies.
It is also important to note that delicious though they may be, not all mushrooms are edible. Many are poisonous. Mushroom poisoning is a term that refers to the adverse effects you face from the consumption of toxic substances present in the mushroom. This mainly occurs when you misidentify a wild, poisonous mushroom for an edible one.
Therefore, unless you are an expert, do not get adventurous one fine morning and go out for mushroom picking around your home. Stick to the ones sold at the shops.
Hasnat Ara, a housewife and an amateur and experimental cook, refuses to downplay mushrooms. “They do add a delightful earthy flavour to many dishes,” she notes. “But recipes such as mushroom soup and mushroom risotto and many others are reason to treat them as an individual dish, where the mushroom doesn't add flavour but rather is the main flavour and these can be eaten without major inclusions of other items.”
Hence, although mushrooms are great side-kicks, they can play the role of a protagonist as well.
Mushrooms are renowned for their nutritional value. They are a good source of Vitamin B; they are also known to have many important minerals, such as potassium, copper and selenium. The latter acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage that might lead to cardiac diseases, some kinds of cancer and some diseases related to aging. Mushrooms are believed to help improve our immune system.
Mushrooms are a low-fat, low-cholesterol food. This is another reason why many people, like Hasnat, put mushrooms on their favourite foods list. She elaborates, “I include mushrooms in my diet to maintain my current weight. They are nutritious; and at the same time, they contain very little fat. Most importantly, they are filling and satisfying -- and this helps in your diet.”
Not everyone is a big fan of mushrooms, though. “The firm texture of mushrooms you can feel as you chew some of the mushrooms is appalling, and the so-called earthy taste does not do anything for me,” Efta, a high school student, complains. “Perhaps, the flavour helps in improving the taste of an overall dish. I'll gulp one or two when I am having spaghetti or soup, but most of them will sit there on an empty bowl at the end of the meal.”
But for the mushroom lovers out there, there is an array of edible mushrooms, and you will find some of them in the superstores in our country. Among all mushrooms, button mushroom, oyster mushroom and enoki mushroom seem to be very popular in Bangladesh. Straw mushrooms and Portobello are also quite popular.
Enoki mushrooms have long, thin stems with tiny and firm caps. A much-used ingredient in East Asian cuisine, these mushrooms, having a mild and subtle flavour, are popularly used in many recipes, such as soups, salads and sandwiches.
Oyster mushrooms are one of the most cultivated and the most sought after all over the world. An oyster mushroom has an elaborate cap and no stem (or tiny, eccentric stem). This genre of edible mushrooms can accompany chicken and seafood dishes, among many others.
Button mushrooms, also called table mushrooms, have thick stalks and large caps. The woodsy flavour they give out gets stronger with cooking. These mushrooms are used in preparing a broad range of food and are an admired side dish for almost any kind of meal.
Other than superstores such as Agora, Dhali and Unimart, many kitchen markets, such as those in Gulshan-1 and Gulshan-2, also sell mushrooms. The canned ones are a little less known in the kitchen markets (but not very rare, though). “The canned mushrooms mainly come from China,” informs a vendor in the kitchen market in Gulshan-2. “There are a few sizes of these cans. Prices begin from around Tk.150.”
Cans are not the only packaging mode. For example, in superstores, you will find a 100gram transparent pack of enoki mushrooms. This is manufactured by a company in Thailand. The price of one packet is around Tk.220. A transparent box of button mushrooms, produced in Bangladesh, (weighing 250g) can cost around Tk.250.
Cultivating mushrooms in Bangladesh gained its momentum less than a decade ago. Farming of mushrooms is relatively easy. The government saw the flexibility and ease of cultivating mushrooms as an opportunity to create employment and better the living standards of people. And thus grew many training centres across the country, where the necessary skills and knowledge about this cultivation are taught, with a consequential result of many success stories such as self-employment, employment and financial stability.
From a delicious and nutritious food to a useful ingredient to being a way of bringing self-employment or self-reliance, mushrooms seem so much more than just being a 'banger chata.'
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed