When Indians eat out, we tend to eat Chinese. And Chinese restaurants in India – like Chinese restaurants elsewhere in the world – use mushrooms in cooking. You’ll find a black, slightly spongy slice of something mushroomy in your hot and sour soup; you’ll bite into a mushroom that is playing a co-starring role in some stir fry and if you extend your gastronomic horizons to Thai food then you’ll find mushrooms in many, many dishes, from curries to salads.
The other reason, of course, is that most of us have never seen a fresh shitake mushroom. Nor for that matter – oddly enough – have most chefs at Chinese restaurants in India.
The reason most of us do not see this as mushroom-eating is because of the identity of the mushroom involved. When we think of mushrooms, we think of the white mushrooms of Western cookery – what the French call Champignons de Paris. These are the mushrooms they put into cans when they are very young (they call them ‘buttons’); the ones you get when you order mushrooms on toast, the kind Indian cooks call dhingri and the ones that European cooks routinely add to their dishes.
But while the cultivated white mushroom may well be the West’s idea of a mushroom, it is probably not the world’s most popular mushroom. That honour goes to the shitake or what we in India call the black mushroom. That’s the one that Chinese restaurants buy by the kilo and put into everything. The shitake is so integral a part of Oriental cookery that it turns up in nearly every Far Eastern cuisine – though strangely, it is almost completely absent from Indian food.
One reason we don’t immediately think of the shitake as a mushroom is because we rarely use it at home. And even when we do eat it at Chinese restaurants, it is rarely something we specifically order by name. Rather, it comes as part of some dish and its presence is rarely acknowledged on the menu. The other reason, of course, is that most of us have never seen a fresh shitake mushroom. Nor for that matter – oddly enough – have most chefs at Chinese restaurants in India.
The key to the shitake’s popularity is that it dries easily. The Chinese prefer it that way because drying concentrates the flavour – reconstituted shitake mushrooms have a taste that is significantly different from their fresh counterparts. I love mushrooms and am constantly looking for ways to add mushroom flavour to dishes.
Plus, a dried mushroom is remarkably easy to transport and will keep for years and years. In more and more grocery shops, all over India, it is now increasingly possible to buy a packet of dried ‘black mushrooms.’ They will not be expensive and even if you put them in your kitchen cupboard and forget about them, do not worry. They will be just the way you bought them even a couple of years later.
The fresh shitake, on the other hand, has a much shorter life – about a week or so. Much the same is true of the white mushroom. And while Indian white mushrooms can sometimes upset your system (something to do with the chemicals used in their cultivation or so I have been told), dried shitakes are entirely safe. When you do pull out your packet of dried mushrooms two years later, you won’t have to worry about them having gone off or your falling ill.
While Western chefs treat mushrooms as no more than a source of taste, the Chinese imbue the shitake with mystical properties. It is regarded as a miracle-medicine and it is even claimed that it can be used as a part of an anti-cancer regimen. Initially, such claims were treated with derision by the West but now American and European drug companies have suddenly awakened to the shitake’s medicinal properties and millions of dollars are being spent on research into the shitake.
I’ve never understood why it is so difficult to get fresh shitake in much of the world. Go to any supermarket in Bangkok or Singapore and you’ll find tons of shitake mushrooms on sale – at very reasonable prices. But until recently, you couldn’t find fresh shitake mushrooms in the UK or in Europe. (That’s changing now.)
One explanation could be the lack of demand: Chinese recipes call for the flavour of dried mushrooms and often do not work as well if you substitute fresh shitake. Another reason is convenience: why transport a vegetable that spoils within a week when customers are quite happy with the dried version?
Speaking for myself, I started out using the dried variety, discovered the fresh version in the Far East, began to bring back masses of delicate, earthy, fresh shitake and then turned against the dried version. Now, I’ve changed my mind again and have decided that there’s room for both. The difference perhaps is that I’ll use fresh shitake as a vegetable and dried shitake as a condiment or flavouring agent.
How do you get fresh shitake? It’s cheap and easy to buy in the Far East, most fancy restaurants now import it and I’m told that it is also available in fancy supermarkets in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. (Though my subziwallah in Defence Colony questioned the very existence of fresh shitake!)
What do you do with them? Well the obvious thing to do is to substitute them for dried kind. But this does not always yield perfect results. So I prefer to use fresh shitake as a substitute for other kinds of fresh mushroom. I have yet to find a single Western recipe for white mushrooms where the dish does not improve if you use shitake. Similarly, recipes that call for dried porcini lend themselves to the use of fresh shitake.
If you are cooking Thai, then fresh shitake is almost always to be preferred to dried (though this is not true of Chinese food), and many classic Thai dishes of the sort we might make at home (say, a salad or a curry or a Tom Yum soup) improve immeasurably from the use of fresh shitake.
Dried shitake are a different matter entirely. You can buy them easily and then reconstitute them by immersing them in warm water for half an hour or so.
Once they have rehydrated, remember that the stalks may still be too tough to eat. Remember also that they’ll never taste like fresh mushrooms – the texture will be entirely different.
In many Chinese dishes, this does not matter. Chinese chefs like cutting the mushroom into strips and adding it to soups or stir-fries. Or, if the mushrooms are of good quality, they braise the cups in oyster sauce. The mushroom never fully rehydrates so it will soak up the sauce as it cooks and the dish that results will have a wonderful spongy texture and a meaty, mushroomy taste.
One explanation could be the lack of demand: Chinese recipes call for the flavour of dried mushrooms and often do not work as well if you substitute fresh shitake.
My own preference though is to use dried shitake for flavour. A fresh mushroom is over 90 per cent water; a dried mushroom on the other hand, is 100 per cent mushroom. Boil a pot of water with four dried shitake mushrooms in it and you’ll get a marvellously flavourful shitake broth. You can use it for anything: as a substitute for meat stock; as the stock for a risotto or to add flavour to a sauce. Sometimes, even if you are making say, a chicken or pork stock (from a cube, even) add a couple of dried mushrooms to the pot – they’ll add a new dimension.
There’s a reason for this and one that Western chefs still don’t fully understand. Scientists now agree that apart from the basic flavours of the West (sweet, salty, sour and bitter), there’s also umami, a word that translates as a cross between salty and meaty. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG or ajinomoto) is a synthetic way of adding umami flavour to dishes. (The original was natural, extracted from seaweed.)
Food scientists now admit that shitake mushrooms are one of the best natural sources of umami flavour. When we add dried shitake to anything, we are adding an umami taste. That’s why a couple of dried mushrooms can enhance the flavour of a soup, a stock or a curry. Fresh shitake mushrooms have an umami taste but do not impact their flavour to other foods as easily.
Once you see dry mushrooms as a source of umami, you’ll find you discover new ways of using them. For instance, I use fresh shitake instead of porcini mushrooms which are hard to find fresh. But if I am making a shitake risotto, I’ll use the fresh mushrooms as the vegetable and the dried version as the flavour – adding some to the chicken stock that I’ll use for the risotto.
Other uses then suggest themselves. An umami flavour will go well with most Chardonnay-based wines, most notably with white Burgundy. All you need to do is to reconstitute some shitake, chop them and then stir fry them with some sliced white mushroom (if you can’t find fresh shitake) and some sliced shallots in a dark soya sauce, a totally umami base. Drink your white wine with this dish and you’ll discover new depths to it.
I love mushrooms and am constantly looking for ways to add mushroom flavour to dishes. One solution has been to grind dried shitake mushrooms at home and make a mushroom powder. Sprinkle it on anything – a fried fish (no batter) for instance – and the dish will take on a mushroomy flavour. I now make a paste of ground dried mushrooms and oil and keep it lying around. Each time a sauce, a soup, or a stock needs an umami oomph, I just add a bit of this paste. It’s better than MSG and much healthier.
The best part is that dried shitake are so easily available and so affordable. It’s just that we see them as part of the Chinese kitchen and rarely explore their possibilities.