BY ANJALI HIREGANGE
One day, my sister and I decided we wanted to make a vegan meal that would take us back to our chicken gobbling days. Our best bet were mushrooms, so we went hunting down the aisles of supermarkets and our local grocers in high hopes. Sadly, all we found were white button mushrooms. We perked up slightly at the lone box of grey oyster mushrooms. Button mushrooms are significantly less nutritious, and aren’t native to India, my sister mused. Moreover, that meaty texture we were looking for could specifically be found in oysters. Thus began our quest to digitally, if not physically, forage for lip-smacking fungi alternatives, and that road led us down the very threads that make up the mycelial world.
Neither vegetable nor animal, mushrooms inhabit a no-man’s land replete with possibilities. Mushrooms are closer in their make-up to humans than plants and are made up of- wait for it- 90 percent water! About 1300 million years ago, our fungal friends parted ways with plants to evolve in a different direction. Unique by nature, mushrooms may technically be dead, yet make for delicious meals. Each variety of edible mushrooms has its own special flavour constitution: while shitakes have a smoky taste, enoki mushrooms are light, fruity and work best in salads. Morels, which can be found in the Himalayan regions have a deep, woody flavour and are rather a whopper in terms of expensiveness. Chanterelles are plump, golden-yellow mushrooms that taste great with eggs.
But these chewy edibles are only the tip of the forest “iceberg”. What a revelation to discover that mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of a vast fungal network called mycelium, that extends like a spider-web all around us, beneath our feet. Indeed, the “fruits” make up less than 5 percent of the organism, with most of its body hidden underground. It may surprise you to know that the honey fungus mushroom holds the title of the largest organism in the world, extending for nearly two and a half miles in length.
Trees and mushrooms enjoy a symbiotic relationship: while mycelium helps extend the trees’ roots so that they get more access to water and minerals, trees gift them carbohydrate meals. This intricate and widespread underground network, also known as the wood wide web, acts akin to a neural network between trees and plants and is used as an ecological information highway between them. It was shown in an experiment by ecologist Suzanne Simard in 1997 that healthy older trees shoot off carbon and other resources to over-shaded younger trees through the wood wide web. This fungal network is also used by trees to warn their neighbours of insect attacks so that they can pre-emptively release defence enzymes. If that wasn’t enough, this mycelial system also helps maintain good soil quality and healthy water levels. In this way fungi are keepers of our ecosystems, facilitating communication and the transfer of vital information, reflecting the health of our forests.
Uncanny, alien-looking and sometimes toxic, there are over 2000 species of mushrooms in the world. Some of the most outlandishly fascinating are of the stinkhorn variety. The Clathrus rubri or anemone stinkhorn often sprouts from dead organic material in gardens and backyards and raises a literal stink. Its slimy brown “nectar” attracts pollinator flies, and to their detriment, pet dogs and cats, to whom the substance can be lethal. Clathrus archeri, also known as octopus stinkhorn, has similar reddish “fingers” that rise theatrically from eggs, resembling the spawning of some science fiction parasite. But the fascinating horror shows of these don’t compare to the poison of their innocent-looking compadre– deathcap mushrooms of the Amanita family, are an unassuming, whitish-brown variety that contains a deadly substance called amatoxin which is fatal to humans.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have mushrooms that are celebrated for their medicinal properties. Take the lion’s mane mushroom for instance- this fantastic fungi with a seafood flavour and shaggy white body is known to improve neural connections in the brain. It has been shown to be useful in treating mild cases of anxiety and depression and prevents memory loss and related diseases such as dementia. Reishi mushroom, known as “the mushroom of immortality”, is a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and is known to improve immunity and alleviate stress. This hard-bodied reddish-brown fan-shaped fungus has been shown to reduce tumour growths and could potentially help fight cancer. Another medicinal mushroom is the turkey tail, which is packed with antioxidants that reduce inflammation, boost immunity and improve gut health. Food and healthcare companies have started producing coffees with mushroom extracts, as well as teas, supplements and capsules that can be taken on the go.
Since many mushrooms grow out of faecal matter, there is a tendency to sideline them. But for ancient cultures, mushrooms were to be revered as well as feared. While Egyptians only allowed royalty to partake of the fungal treasures, ancient Romans called mushrooms “the food of the Gods”. Most edible varieties mentioned here grow wild in our very own native forests and hills, during the monsoons. Yet, it is a pity that we majorly consume and cultivate only the button variety. But there is a silver lining with hobbyists and conservation aficionados cultivating a greater variety of tastes, for health and sustainability experiments and projects. Innovators are creating leather from mushrooms and mycelial cells towards an animal-friendly and sustainable future. A mycelium-based fabric called ‘Mylo’ is being used by big brands such as Adidas and Stella McCartney as part of their clothing line. ‘Mogu’ is another patented mushroom fabric that is low-cost and 100 percent bio-degradable. However, not all mushroom fabric is plastic-free, and it remains to be seen how they fare in terms of pricing, popularity and eco-friendliness. Whether mushrooms are good or bad is irrelevant- they are fascinating organisms whose study can provide us with future-driven solutions and a deeper understanding of the world we live in.
Anjali Hiregange is a writer, freelance artist and practising sound healer based in Bangalore. Following her bachelor’s at Christ University, she completed her master’s in Literature at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She loves travelling, smoothies, art and being in nature.