From a creamy soup and an Italian risotto to simply stir-fried, grilled, sautéed or used as a topping for that pizza you love to sink your teeth into, there is nothing like the succulent edible mushrooms as a culinary wonder.
They go superbly well with just about any foodstuff: meat, vegetables, pasta, spaghetti and . . . you name it. With that earthy, briny tang, they add a unique flavor to the dishes and have been labeled as “the fifth taste sense called umami.” They were also called the “gifts of the gods” by the ancient Romans.
Like vegetables, mushrooms or champignons have found a niche in our staple diet and we often buy them. For vegetarians and vegans, these spongy fungi are like the jewel in the crown for their fleshy and meaty texture. Although widely accepted as a vegetable, it belongs to the fungi family, though.
White and dull to look at, the brighter and varied color vegetable always have an edge on mushrooms. For an average Nepali, the relatively higher cost of mushroom also makes it more of an occasional buy. In this aspect, however, the trend of buying mushroom has gone up in the recent years and people are ready to spend an extra rupee on them.
Of the many varieties of mushroom, the most commonly available in the market are the commercially cultivated the most versatile white button mushroom, called gobre chyau(Agaricus bisporus). They are also known by different names according to their maturing stages.
When immature they are white button mushroom, champignon or table mushroom. When immature with a brownish tint, they are cremini mushroom, Swiss brown mushroom or Italian mushrooms. Mature mushrooms are known as Portobello.
The pale ivory-colored mushroom bearing resemblance to oysters are oyster mushrooms or kanye chyau in Nepali (Pleurotus ostreatus). These mushrooms in the wild grow on, tree boles, stumps and wood decay. The cultivated ones are grown on straws.
The jumbo size medium brown and freckled mushrooms are known as shiitake (Lentinula edodes). They can grow as large as the size of a dinner plate (10 inches). The Shiitake mushrooms are a relative newcomer. More intricate to grow, the payback period for Shiitake mushroom is eight months.
In Nepal, and especially Kathmandu, small farmers are more inclined to growing white button and oyster mushrooms relatively to shiitake as the yield is quicker and they are easy to grow. If the harvesting time for button mushrooms is three months, it’s only two months for the oyster variety.
More than that, farmers have also devised new techniques to grow them in off-season too, thus, supplementing their income almost around the year. There has been a meteoric rise in the production of mushroom in the recent years.
Native to China, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan, Shiitake, also called the black forest tree mushroom or Xiang Gu (fragrant mushroom) in China, is said to have been traced to the cretaceous period, more than one hundred million years ago. With a rich smoky taste, they have been used in Asian medicine and cuisine for infinite generations and are available in dried form too. Grown on tree logs in the open, tropical climate best suits those species.
Mushroom farming in Nepal started just a little over three decades ago. I still remember eating wild mushrooms when I was young, which was then sold in hand-woven wicker baskets. My mother always tested its toxicity while cooking by dipping a silver spoon in the curry. If toxic, the silver-white spoon turned black.
It was kind of touch-and-go to eat wild mushroom then. Cases of wild mushroom poisoning were often reported by the newspapers, some with dire results, even deaths. Today, the commercially grown edible mushrooms are completely safe to eat.
We buy mushroom for its exotic taste but at the back of our mind we know or we have been told that it is nutritious too. We do not, however, know exactly how nutritious it is, or what health benefits are there in eating mushrooms.
For time immemorial, mushrooms have been used throughout Asia for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, too. The use of mushrooms in Chinese herbal medicine was said to have been practiced since ages. Time we took a look at the possible goodness of eating mushrooms.
Mushrooms contain most of the essential elements that our body needs for nourishment, to safeguard us against diseases and to maintain an overall good health and wellbeing. Being a potent source of micronutrients, they are also considered among the ‘superfoods’.
Let’s take a look at its nutrient value:
- Low in carbohydrate high in fiber
- Contains little or no sugar
- Good source of B-vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, iron and selenium
- They synthesize vitamin-D after exposed to the sun
- Contains no fat or cholesterol
- Very low in sodium and high in potassium
- Contains an antioxidant/anti-inflammatory property called ergothioneine and polyphenols
Mushrooms rank very low on the glycemic index (calories, carbs or fat certain food items contain). Clinical research has led to findings that mushrooms contain natural insulin and enzymes, which after being tested on rats led to lowered glucose and improved lipid levels.
Its low-calorie content, fat-free property and the presence of antioxidant/anti-inflammatory components help check blood-sugar spikes and lower blood glucose levels and boost insulin sensitivity.
Tested chromium-rich, incorporating mushrooms in your diet support insulin function, regulate blood sugar level, and even work wonders for your metabolism.
Science has backed the fact that the fruity edible fungi, that is, mushrooms we eat, contain proteins, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, and fiber–unarguably good in lowering cholesterol.
The fiber, potassium, vitamin C and the sodium in mushrooms act as a vasodilator in lowering and regulating blood pressure. So, mushrooms as a part of your diet keeps your heart healthy.
Food scientists claim that eating mushrooms regularly increases bone density. The trace mineral copper and a healthy amount of zinc in mushrooms are considered an excellent source of bone-healthy-nutrient.
Both osteoporosis and osteopenia are bone-related problems, a major public health threat, affecting adults, men and women after the age of 50. Rich in selenium, mushrooms help as powerful anti-oxidants, when it comes to bone metabolism. The selenium content in mushrooms also strengthens the teeth, nails and even the hair.
To keep ourselves healthy and at bay from diseases, our immune system comes into play. It’s a complicated grid of our body cells, tissues, and organs, which combine to keep us healthy and free of diseases by guarding us against infectious micro-organisms. In other words, it’s our body’s defense mechanism against infection and illness.
Scientists claim that a regular diet of mushrooms helps prevent breast and prostate cancers. Rich in linoleic acid that subdues the harmful effects of excess oestrogen (in females), and beta glucans that thwart the growth of cancerous cells, mushrooms are being hailed as a possible cure for these cancers.
Although not hundred percent clinically proven, some medicinal mushrooms (and their extracts) like the shiitake, maitake, mannentake or reishi and cordyceps are being used worldwide to combat cancer. Scientists have, however, recognised the immune boosting properties and a source of powerful anti-oxidants the mushrooms have to offer, which point to their anti-cancer effects.
Food scientists also believe that eating mushrooms is also good for improved digestion, losing extra weight, boosting iron absorption, revitalizing body metabolism, and help stimulating enzymes, and so on.
Tips for selecting, cleaning and storing
Mushrooms have a very short shelf life. So always buy fresh, firm and plump looking mushrooms. The cleaning part of mushroom is trickier. The best way is to get a clean cloth and wipe the mushrooms thoroughly. Washing or soaking in water will turn them spongy as they absorb liquid tremendously.
If you think they need a much better cleaning, lightly rinse it and then pat dry with a clean cloth. To retain their freshness, keep them in the refrigerator in a paper bag, and not in plastic to avoid spoilage. They remain fresh in the refrigerator for four to seven days.