Since I work with restaurants and hotels a great deal, I have suddenly noticed a great interest in mushrooms, especially as an exotic vegetarian offering. When I returned to live in India in the mid-1980s, button mushrooms sold in packets were only available in two stores in south Mumbai, Café Galleries on Breach Candy and Rustom’s in Colaba. If you served them at home, you were considered a spendthrift or a high priestess of culinaria. Most people had no clue how to clean them (just with a damp cloth actually, or with a sharp knife to remove the outer skin, if you are using them raw in salads), cut them or cook them.
On the menu: The delectable fungi is now standard fare.
So, they represented something quite exotic and quite unknown. Most people I know, especially vegetarians, either adore them or look at them with some amount of suspicion since they are, in fact, “fungi”. Of course, button mushrooms have now crept into the Indian diet and Indian restaurant menus.
There are two distinct types of mushroom—cultivated and wild. You will often see “wild mushroom” on fancy restaurant menus. If they are telling you the truth, you’ll perhaps get porcini (known as cep in France), a delicious woody fungi full of its own flavour and aroma (also available dry) found in Italy and France. Field mushrooms, morel (found in Kashmir) and the French orange coloured chanterelle are also wild, which explains their price. The common button mushroom, white oyster mushroom (also available dry), the wonderfully flavourful shiitake (most often available dry since they come from China) and straw mushroom (again available tinned since they come from China, too) are cultivated.
You may also come across fine white enokitake and cloud ear fungus, both popular and considered great delicacies in upmarket traditional Chinese restaurants. In fact, the Chinese consider mushrooms to have healing properties and the shiitake is a well-known Japanese remedy for everything from heart disorders and fatigue to viral infections.
In the past few months, I have been involved with a contemporary new restaurant in Kolkata called Afraa. It is one of the most beautiful restaurants I have ever seen in India, with large open spaces, wooden floors and amazing views of the city. The food could be from any top restaurant in the world. This is Afraa’s recipe for their much acclaimed Mushroom Capuccino, using three different fungi.
Chunky Mushroom Capuccino
5 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 cup button mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water for 30 mins
3-4 pieces of dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in water for 10 mins
2 slices of bread
500 ml good stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch of nutmeg or ground mace.
At least 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
About ¼ cup single cream
Drain out the water from the shiitake and the porcini mushrooms and squeeze slightly. Chop roughly. Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the garlic and stir for half-a-minute or so, and then add all the mushrooms. Turn them gently in the butter until they are slightly greasy, then put the lid on the pan and leave them to cook gently for three minutes. Break the bread up roughly and add them to the mushrooms. Then add the stock and season with salt, pepper and a good pinch of nutmeg and ground mace. Bring the soup to simmer point and simmer slowly for 10 minutes. Liquidize the soup in a blender. Add the cream last and allow to froth like a capuccino. Pour into individual glasses or coffee cups and garnish with parsley.