If you had many vegetarian friends whose household income exceeded a certain level (ie they were rich) then you will be familiar with the ‘baked dish’ that was a staple of Marwari and Bania entertaining till the 1990s. (That’s when I stopped going to these households, so perhaps that infamous dish is still around and I just have not noticed.)
In essence this consisted of various ‘European’ vegetables (canned sweet corn or baby corn, packaged artichoke hearts, canned button mushrooms, fibrous white asparagus fresh from the tin, etc) in white sauce, topped with Amul cheese and finished in the oven.
That it was tasteless and disgusting beyond belief goes without saying and I suspect that even the hostesses who served it loathed the taste.
But because it made a change from the raj kachoris and samosas that made up the rest of the repast, it stayed on the menu as a token nod to sophistication.
Portobello find: The same species as white mushrooms but allowed to grow out and gain a distinctive flavour.
I would always ask the hostesses why, if they were serving mushrooms, they did not buy them from the market. Most were surprised by my question. Really, they asked. Could you get fresh mushrooms in India? They had no idea they were even available.
Entire generations of Indians grew up on canned mushrooms. These were usually small button mushrooms (possibly imported to India in bulk) packed in brine and then stuffed into cans.
One measure of the foodie revolution in India is the shift in our attitude to mushrooms.
Flavour factor: I prefer fresh shiitake. But they lack the concentrated umami oomph of dried ones
They had a nasty pale green colour. And if they ever had any flavour, this had been dissolved into the brine. All you tasted, when you bit into them, was salt water.
Even five-star hotels followed the policy of canned-rather-than-fresh. In the 1980s, I had the Mushrooms a’ la Grecque, a classic salad dish at the Bombay Oberoi and found that it was truly revolting.
The problem was that the chef had used canned mushrooms and though he had followed the traditional recipe, it did not matter. All you tasted was brine.
I wrote about the disgusting flavour of the dish in Bombay magazine, where I worked, and the Oberoi started getting fresh mushrooms. But chefs remained unconvinced.
Show it some love: Our answer to the truffle, the morel grows wild in Kashmir where it is called the guchhi
As one of the chefs at the Oberoi’s great rival, the Taj, explained to me: “It is not safe to use fresh mushrooms. So we prefer canned mushrooms.”
It is true that wild mushrooms, picked indiscriminately by amateurs, can be poisonous. But I’ve never ever heard of cultivated white mushrooms having toxic effects. So why were the chefs so frightened of using the fresh ingredient?
In part, I think, it was just unfamiliarity. In that era, Indians (even chefs) were not comfortable with mushrooms. Most had been to catering college in the ’60s and ’70s when the only mushrooms you got were canned.
And Indians have long been prejudiced against mushrooms. According to one translation, the Buddha died after eating a poisonous mushroom. (In another version, he was killed by stale meat – but then, Indians like to believe that the Buddha was a vegetarian, even though Buddhists can be beef-eaters.)
But, in this century, the fresh mushroom has finally found acceptance in Indian kitchens. Rare is the restaurant where the chef insists on using salty, canned mushrooms.
And even our sabziwallahs sell many varieties of fresh mushroom. In case you are confused by the vast range of mushrooms (many of them imported from Thailand) on sale at your local sabziwallah, here is a rough guide to what’s available.
The White Mushroom Called Champignons de Paris in France, this is the basic mushroom available everywhere. It has no real flavour but people buy it for the shape, the texture and well, the thought of eating a fresh mushroom.
This is the easiest mushroom to cultivate so there are hundreds of suppliers. Unfortunately your sabziwallah will never tell you where he gets his mushrooms from (“Kasauli say aatay hain, na”) preferring to rely on generalities.
There should be no difference in quality. But, there is. Some of these mushrooms give me a bad stomach. (An allergy, perhaps?) And some tend to give out water the moment they hit the pan.
One producer told me that his rivals (in Delhi and thereabouts) grow them on toxic waste, while the producers who cultivate them in Punjab and Himachal are more careful. I have no idea what the truth is, but be warned: quality can vary.
Brown, Chestnut or Cremini mushrooms Suppliers don’t always want you to know this but they are exactly the same species as the white mushroom. There are slight variations in terms of strain and age but that is about it.
In my experience however, they have a more pronounced flavour than white mushrooms and are always to be preferred
Portobello Sad to say, these are also the same species as the common white mushrooms. The difference is age. If you let the mushroom grow then it spreads out, becomes flatter and acquires a distinctive flavour.
I like larger mushrooms because of the taste. But to enjoy the flavour, you have to grill them or sauté them in olive oil or butter with herbs. If you chop them up, fill them with cheese, or batter-fry them, then you are wasting your money.
Shiitake We have all eaten this at some time on the other. The shiitake is what the Chinese call the black mushroom. In most Chinese restaurants around the world, chefs use dried shiitake and then rehydrate them in warm water.
The dried shiitake is a source of concentrated umami flavour but the texture is not natural and while you don’t mind strips of shiitake in your hot and sour soup, it is hard to think of it as a fresh vegetable.
Shiitake costs as much as white mushroom in Thailand. So Indian vegetable importers now fly in fresh shiitake from Bangkok and sell them to restaurants and upmarket sabziwallahs.
I like fresh shiitake and substitute them for white mushrooms whenever I can. But some things need to be remembered. They don’t have the concentrated umami oomph of dried shitake. And the ones you get in India are often way past their prime and are frequently overpriced. So proceed with caution.
Porcini As far as I know, you don’t get porcini in India but I was recently assured by friends that a Bombay sabziwallah sells them from time to time.
I am sceptical about this claim but just in case you do come across them, they are the mushrooms the French call ceps (or cepes) and scientists call boletus edulis.
They are huge, meaty, and have a flavour that is unmatched. They are hard to cultivate and are usually gathered wild in the autumn and winter in Europe.
The best porcini can be expensive and the ones that are not good enough to sell fresh end up being dried and sold around the year. The chances are that if you see a porcini risotto on a menu, it is made from dried porcini.
Some chefs, such as my friend Ramon Salto at the Gurgaon Leela, are able to coax flavour out of dried porcini (Ramon does a porcini Spanish omelette), but most chefs are foiled by anything other than the fresh version.
I can see the point of using dried porcini for stock and sauce. But the texture is so wrong that I would not recommend them for any other use.
You also get an Asian (ie Thai) strain of boletus in Asia which is sometimes sold as porcini. It has no flavour, no texture, and is a complete waste of money. Do not be fooled.
Oyster Mushroom This is one mushroom that has a place in Indian cuisine, and turns up in dishes in Nepal and in Kerala. You will see it sold widely these days because it is really cheap to cultivate.
The French call it “the weeper” because it lets out so much water when cooked. I don’t like it and I am not moved by claims that it tastes like an oyster. (It does not.) Steer clear.
Morel The king of Indian mushrooms and our answer to the truffle, the morel grows wild in Kashmir where it is called the guchhi. It is delicious when fresh but the vast majority of the morels we get in the rest of India are dried and have to be reconstituted in warm water.
The fresh morel has a musky odour and a woody flavour. The dried version keeps the odour but loses some of the flavour and replaces the delicate texture of the original with a nasty plasticky feel.
The best way to use dried morels is not to reconstitute them with water but to use milk or cream so that they take on a richer flavour. Put them in a pulao or even a risotto and they will add a delicious fragrance and flavour to the rice.
Unfortunately India’s chefs function as a death squad out on assignment to assassinate the morel. They stuff it with disgusting paneer, they fry it till it tastes of nothing, or they pack it full of masalas.
Which, I guess, is why the morel never gets the pride of place it deserves in our cuisine. Nor does anyone I know bother to package fresh morels and to despatch them fresh from Kashmir to the rest of India. This is an opportunity in search of a talented entrepreneur.
Enoki A mushroom that chefs love because it has long, thin stalks and looks great on the plate.
The best way to use it is to stir fry at very high heat very quickly so it retains a crunchy, almost beansprout-like texture. No great flavour but can be delicious sautéed in butter with salt and pepper: but butter makes everything taste good!
And finally I’m a mushroom freak. I don’t necessarily expect you to be one too. But given that there are so many mushrooms available in a market that was till recently, dominated by mushrooms canned with brine, you would have to be crazy not to explore the possibilities.