They may belong to the vegetarian section of the menu, but they are neither vegetables nor fruit. Technically the fruit of a fungus, mushrooms are a fascinating category of food that not only add a unique flavour to the food palate but are also a rich source of certain vitamins.
There are around 10,000 known varieties of mushroom and an unknown vast number yet to be identified. Among these, a handful are poisonous (like toadstools) while a majority are edible. Some like truffles are rare and considered delicacies. For instance, certain white truffles cost as much as $6000 for 450 gms.
Truffles were a delicacy even during the time of the Romans who believed that they were a result of lightning strikes. Mushrooms are said to have been a part of the ancient Chilean diet (13,0000 years ago). Other accounts say that the Chinese used to eat them as far back as the BCs!
Mushrooms are natural decomposers. Or at least some of them are. Saprotrophic mushrooms receive their nutrition from the dead tissue of plants and animals. Ironically, some of the most exotic mushrooms, like morels, belong to this category.
Here is a list of some popular saprotrophs:
Morels: Difficult to find, but very delicious. This species is very popular with mushroom hunters
Shiitake: Famous for both its great taste and medicinal properties.
Portobello/Button: Probably the most common variety of mushroom available.
Oyster: Also known for its cholesterol-reducing effects.
Enokitake or Enoki: Popularly used in Asian and South-East Asian cuisine. It is easy to cultivate and often used in soups. It is delicate and looks like a bouquet of mushrooms joined together.
Another kind of mushroom, based on how it draws it nutrition, is Mycorrhizae. These fungi possess thread-like structures called mycelia which enter into a mutually beneficial union with the roots of plants by either weaving into the root cells or wrapping around the roots themselves.
The mycelia provide additional moisture and nutrients to their hosts and, in return, they gain access to sugars that the hosts produce.
This allows plants to grow bigger, faster, and stronger than their nonmycorrhizal counterparts. Many farmers and gardeners inoculate their crops with a mycorrhizal fungus for better growth.
The following types of mushrooms are difficult to cultivate and are often found only in nature.
Porcini: Large cup shaped mushrooms, often used in soups and sauces.
Truffles: Called diamonds of the Kitchen, these wild mushrooms are rare and therefore, expensive. Farmers use specially trained pigs and dogs to find them. Not much to look at, truffles are nonetheless a prized commodity in certain cuisines.
Chanterelles: Another gourmet delicacy, these funnel like mushrooms owe their popularity to the French cuisine.
Parasitic mushrooms: Unlike Mychorrhizal mushrooms, this variety deploys a one-sided relationship with its host, which eventually dies.
Some edible parasitic mushrooms are the Honey Fungus, Caterpillar Fungus and Lion’s Mane. The last example is suspected to help heal nerve tissue.
While most known mushrooms are harmless, it is never advisable to pick one off the ground to eat. There are a few poisonous varieties out there and their colours give them away. However not all harmful mushrooms are coloured. Going by the motto ‘When in doubt go without’ is a safe bet when picking mushroom!