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The king of vegetables

For years and years, if you asked chefs and caterers which vegetable Indian vegetarians would not eat, the answer was always the same: mushrooms.

Guests thought they were poisonous, we were told. Some would only eat canned mushrooms, horrible little buttons that had turned a nasty shade of brown in the brine in which they were soaked. Fresh mushrooms were strictly a no-no.


A decade ago when I was invited to an Air-India food tasting, I asked the chef who ran the flight kitchen why he did not do something more interesting with the vegetarian options, which were restricted to several kinds of paneer.


   Why not mushrooms?


   I was told that this was out of the question. Passengers would not eat them. The Air India catering team agreed with me. They had experimented with mushrooms on the in-flight menu but nobody touched them.


   Fortunately, this has finally begun to change in recent years. But it has always intrigued me that even during the period when vegetarians would not eat mushrooms (and many still do not) there were always two exceptions.


   The first was the dried black mushroom of Chinese cooking. Vegetarians would not necessarily order shitake mushrooms but if they saw one used in a dish they had ordered, they would not scream ‘poison’!


   The second exception has always been the Gucchi. (There are many English spellings but I am going with this one). The Gucchi is probably the most expensive vegetable in India. At present prices can reach Rest. 30,000 to Rs 40,000 a kilo. When it is served to vegetarians, it is treated as a rare delicacy. A vegetarian banquet packed with gucchi dishes is considered a sign of great luxury and extravagance. Insensitive foodies who do not realise that I am a bania, even privately describe the gucchi as the Bania Truffle.


   And yet the gucchi is, basically, a mushroom.  It is called a morel in English and is found all over the Northern hemisphere, in Europe, the US and China. Unlike most mushrooms you are likely to be served in a restaurant which will have been farmed in a controlled environment, the gucchi grows wild.


   Most people who sell the gucchi to restaurants (or to consumers like you and me) have no idea what its provenance is. The first in a series of middle men buys the mushroom from pickers and foragers in Kashmir or (increasingly) Himachal. These pickers have gone out foraging in the wild, have gathered the mushrooms and have air-dried them before selling to the middle-men.


   The first middle man sells the dried gucchi to a bigger middleman and on and on the process goes till the mushroom reaches the restaurant or home kitchen. At each stage, the price goes up to reflect the middlemen’s profit and by the time it is eventually served in a restaurant, the amount the picker was paid for it is probably 10 percent of the final price or less.

   "In India, unfortunately, we have no tradition of fresh gucchi so nearly all morels served in our country are reconstituted from the dried version."


   I don’t want to focus too much on the way in which the original seller is didled while the middle-men make all the money because this is true of other vegetables too. But what makes the gucchi different is how little the prosperous vegetarians who eat it know about the mushroom and its provenance. Do they know, for instance, that there is a false, poisonous morel-type mushroom that looks like the gucchi (the gills are the main difference)? And even the ‘safe’ gucchi that we eat can contain toxins if eaten raw (which, fortunately, it rarely is). Contrast this with the normal white mushroom which so many vegetarians shun on the grounds that it could be poisonous. That inexpensive mushroom is, in fact, quite safe and free from poison.


   Why, you may ask, is the gucchi so expensive that it is regarded as the truffle of the Himalayan foothills? Well, mostly, because it is so rare. You can cultivate the morel now but most of the world’s supply comes from the wild. There is a short season during which foragers go out into the woods looking for morels. In the West, where supply chains are well organised, the morel is sold fresh like any other mushroom.


   In India, unfortunately, we have no tradition of fresh gucchi so nearly all morels served in our country are reconstituted from the dried version. In fact, I have never even seen a fresh Indian morel.


   Gucchi can last for months once they are dried, so transportation and storage are much easier. But because supplies are limited (even of the dried version) there is a scarcity value that pushes the prices up.


   Does the taste of morel contribute to the high prices charged for it? Is it like, say, the truffle, a mushroom whose aroma drives people wild? Does it taste as fleshy and delightful as say, the porcini?


   Opinions are divided. The morel’s fans say it has a musky aroma and a deep earthy flavour which makes it worth the price. Others say that it has a strange, rubbery texture (especially after the dried morel has been rehydrated) and there is nothing particularly special about the flavour.


   I stand somewhere in the middle. I will happily eat a dish containing morels but I would not, in a million years, considering paying anything like the prices that they now charge for morels.


   In my view, the dried morel works best when it is used to flavour a starch or a fatty sauce. The perfect way to enjoy morels is with rice. Cook them as part of a pulao and they will flavour the rice and impart a wonderful aroma to the pulao. The advantage with this style of preparation is that you don’t have to eat the rehydrated morel itself (which can be rubbery) but still enjoy the flavour it is famous for by eating the rice.


   I am less keen on morel subzis and the other ways in which it is cooked at Indian restaurants. The French will usually cook morels with cream and may use a small quantity as part of a gravy or sauce for another dish. I have had fresh morels sautéd with lots of butter and they were delicious.


   But it’s more difficult to make anything particularly special with the dried version. To cook them with masala is a waste of such expensive ingredients; you should be able to taste the mushroom itself, not muddle its flavour with spices. Most intelligent Indian chefs will follow the global principle and cook morels with dairy. They will rehydrate them with milk (not water) and use some kind of dairy product in the dishes.


   What does not work — at least to my palate — is to stuff a dried morel with something. If you use the morel as a case or a covering for some other flavour, you miss the point of the mushroom and its flavour.


   But these are just my personal preferences. Most people who spend thousands of rupees on morels clearly disagree with me. I have even heard chefs describing the morel as the king of vegetables (at those prices, they better call it that!) so obviously I am missing something.


   Just two words of advice. One, if you like morels so much, try other mushrooms too. They are much cheaper and, to my palate, much tastier. And two, don’t listen to me. Make up your own mind.




  • Gautam Natrajan 12 Nov 2023

    Have you ever tasted pathar ke phool ie lichen? What's your experience of rarer, more "exotic" or unknown ingredients in Indian cuisine? I hope you do a piece on these sine day.

Posted On: 10 Nov 2023 11:40 AM
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