What’s food without fungi - the taste of mushrooms in monsoon

The best olmis grow where there are cobras in the termite hills

August 19, 2017 04:18 pm | Updated 06:06 pm IST

Olmi sold wrapped in sayal (teak) leaves

Olmi sold wrapped in sayal (teak) leaves

Come monsoon, and a highly prized (and highly priced) culinary delicacy finds its way into Goa’s markets: no, it isn’t an exotic fish — it’s mushrooms. And we are not talking about the ubiquitous button mushroom available year-round. Wrapped in sayal (teak) leaves, vendors bring in native varieties of mushrooms, whose names sound like they could be sung to a Konkani rhythm: roenichim, toshali, chochyali, khut, shiti, shitol, shiringar olmi, shendari, kuski, dukor, surya olmi, tel alami, fuge, bhuifod. But the prima donna of the buffet is the fleshy olmi or alami.

Irrespective of religion, and across economic strata, Goenkars would agree that the rainy season isn’t quite complete without a meal that has olmi — of unparalleled texture and flavour — as the star.

The Termitomyces genus, that olmi belongs to, is endemic to the dense forests of the Western Ghats and grows also in the adjoining parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. These mushrooms grow in symbiosis with other organisms, and, in the case of olmis, they only grow on termite hills.

Overharvesting threat

It has been difficult to grow them in artificial conditions, and as a result olmis are now threatened by overharvesting. In fact, a lot of mushroom varieties in this region are vulnerable.

Picking mushrooms in the wild.

Picking mushrooms in the wild.

There has been a dramatic decline in the diversity of mushrooms in the market, says Nandkumar Kamat, a microbiologist and assistant professor in Goa University’s Department of Botany and a former member of the State Wildlife Board. Kamat has spent over 25 years researching mushrooms. “I have recorded about 100 different species of edible mushrooms in Goa,” he says. “Of these, 35 are collected from the wild for consumption.”

Around 15 species were recorded during a market survey in 1986 of which only five are now found. The fungi have grown pricey too, from ₹450 to ₹750 for a bundle of 50 to 60 large wild olmis last year, to nearly ₹1,500 for 30 to 40 bud-sized ones this year.

In 1992, Goa’s forest department banned mushroom harvesting , and in 1993, the ban was amended to apply only to wildlife sanctuaries and government forests.

Forest harvest

Sanjay Waradkar, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Wildlife and Eco-tourism, South Goa, says wildlife patrols prevent people from entering forests to pluck mushrooms, but admits that the system isn’t foolproof.

“Forests are open wealth with open boundaries. It is nearly impossible to control harvesting of wild mushrooms in sanctuaries and reserve forest areas.”

Ravindra Dhuri, 55, a resident of Banda, does not tell me where he harvests olmis, but shares his expertise. “It is believed that robust mushroom growth is accompanied by the presence of cobras in the termite hill. You must perform the tallo firoy .”

This ritual, of brushing the hill with a bunch of leafy twigs, may seem spiritual, but is grounded in practicality. “It sends the snake into hiding and this is when you can start plucking the mushrooms.”

At Panaji’s famous pavement market near the District Court, I meet Anandi Canconkar of Madkai village in Ponda taluk, who has been selling olmi here every year for over 30 years. She agrees that the quantity of olmi coming to the market has dropped.

Pushpa Thali, 74, of Ponda speaks with visible relish of the many dishes one can make with wild mushrooms. The most popular is xacuti, cooked with coconut and spices, a method more commonly used for chicken.

But almost as good, she says, is patol tonak, a curry with coconut and Goan masala. Her sons love her alami chilly fry, a simple fried version with the mushrooms cut vertically.

Then there is olmya suki bhaji, which has no gravy, just the sliced mushrooms fried in oil. Also popular is a simple olmi soup. The favoured accompaniments for all of these are the Goan breads, poli, pav and undo, or boiled rice, served hot.

I can’t say I am not hungry.

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