Thai mushrooms—delicacies and things of beauty
things of beauty, delicacies, drugs, and potential killers
Most of the popular dishes here are either Thai in origin, or introduced by immigrants from China. Interestingly, mushrooms form a major ingredient in many of both categories. Thailand abounds in cultivated mushrooms, and at least four kinds are commonly available in fresh markets and supermarkets. What’s more, during the rainy season, foragers flock to the forests to gather a wide variety of wild ones.
When asked why they set fire to the forest undergrowth in the dry season, one of the reasons often given by villagers is to facilitate access to them for picking mushrooms as soon as the rains arrive. Certainly, such fungi are easier to spot after the forest litter and dry shrubs have been burnt to ashes. For many villagers selling them yields a substantial addition to their income from agriculture. They may trade them in local markets, or build temporary bamboo shelters along a nearby main road and sell them to passing motorists. From June until September, Highway 108 between San Patong and Chomthong, and Highway 11 south of Lamphun are stretches where you can expect to find such stalls.
Most of the mushrooms consumed in Thailand, however, belong to the cultivated types and are available throughout the year. They are both tasty and nutritious, many being a rich source of protein. They can be cooked in curries or stirred in a wok together with a choice of vegetables and shrimps or minced pork or chicken. They are also common ingredients in many spicy Thai salads.
The Straw Mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) is probably Thailand’s best-known type and one of the tastiest. Both its English and Thai name (het fang / เห็ดฟาง) refer to straw as the medium on which it is usually grown. It somewhat resembles the champignon, however, the cap of the young specimens is not flattened but characteristically dome-shaped, and has a light greyish or yellowish tint. The immature stages of both are generally preferred to the fully developed ones. The straw mushroom is sweeter and most people find its taste superior to the champignon’s. Stirred with sweet baby corn and shrimps or chopped chicken, it makes the delicious rice-based dish phat khao phot het fang / ผัดข้าวโพดเห็ดฟาง. It is also a major ingredient in tom yam kung / ต้มยำกุ้ง, a spicy, sour curry with shrimp, considered one of the best examples of ‘classic’ Thai cuisine.
As the Straw Mushroom’s market price may soar occasionally, the owners of restaurants and food stalls may then substitute the cheaper het nang fa / เห็ดนางฟ้า (Pleurotus spec.), which translates as ‘Lady Heaven’ mushroom. Despite this exalted name, to my taste it is much inferior in flavour.
The most popular mushroom in Chinese cuisine is the widely cultivated Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), with its Thai name het hom / เห็ดหอม meaning ‘aromatic mushroom’. The texture of this brown species makes it suitable for drying. It does not lose its fragrance during the process. Before use, just soak it for ten minutes in water. Fresh shiitake is rather expensive. In Mae Sai, at the most northern tip of Thailand, and even more so in Tha Khilek across the Burmese border, the dried ones are available at bargain prices. If you are fond of this mushroom, you would do well to buy a large bag of them in Burma — the price difference with the product in Chiang Mai easily compensates for the travel expenses and visa fee. In Chinese cuisine, whole or sliced Shiitake is stir fried with vegetables, such as asparagus or broccoli, and is also essential in various gravies. One of my favourite dishes is kraphao pla nam daeng / กระเพาะปลาน้ำแดง (‘fish bladder in red sauce’) in which it is cooked together with dried fish float bladder and various other ingredients, such as sliced bamboo shoots and the peeled, boiled eggs of quails.
These kinds all belong to the ‘common type’ with a cap on a stalk and centrifugally radiating gills on its undersurface (though in the immature, encapsulated stage this structure may not be evident). In fact, these mushrooms are the reproductive organs of a mass of thin filaments (mycelium) hidden in the soil, dead wood, or in living organisms.
The popular het hu nu / เห็ดหูหนู (‘mouse-ear mushroom’), however, has a completely different reproductive organ, being a brown, thin, and irrigularly formed fleshy protuberance resembling an ear, sprouting from dead tree trunks and branches. Of the several wild species in Thailand, Auricularia auricula is commonly collected.
The similar Auricularia polytricha has been introduced from Taiwan and is now widely cultivated. It is an ingredient in the rather mild kaeng chuet / แกงจืด, a ‘clear’ curry which usually also contains glass noodles, tahu (soybean-curd) and vegetables. It is also conspicuous in some of the spicy, sour tasting Thai salads known as yam / ยำ, often mixed with ingredients vegetarians will promptly reject, such as sliced sausages, luk chin (balls of minced meat, pork or fish mixed with cassava flour), or chicken skin.
A related species (Hirneola auricula-juda) infests elder trees in Western Europe. The Dutch name for the fleshy structures popping from the branches is judasoor (‘ear of Judas’ in the sense of ‘false ear’) after the Biblical Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the authorities. However, there it is seldom collected and virtually unknown as a delicacy A Dutch friend visiting me in Thailand was shocked to find these ‘tiny bat’s wings’ in his ‘soup’.
Of all the wild varieties, the het khon / เห็ดโคน (Termitomyces spec.) is probably the most prized for its delicate taste. This light brown mushroom of the ‘classic’ type (cap with gills on a stalk) grows on termite moulds. As a delicacy on its own, the Thai just cook or fry it to eat with rice. Wild chanterelles with their nutty taste are also much sought after, the little, dark yellow het khamin noi / เห็ดขมิ้นน้อย (Craterellus aureus) being sold in cups folded from banana leaves. Fried with fresh eggs they are regarded as a delicacy.
Also popular is the het lom / เห็ดลม (Lentinus spec.), a brown type that grows on logs. This species belongs to the Polyporaceae, though the underside op the cap does not bear pores but lamellas similar to the amanitas and other well-known mushrooms.
Its flesh is very tough, but the Northern Thai like to cook it together with nam phrik paste and a choice of wild vegetables (such as the young leaves of certain creepers and the flowers of various kinds of tree species) to make kaeng khae / แกงแค, a delicious local curry.
Astraeus hygrometricus is a tiny, globular, almost black mushroom, just 1-2 centimetres in diameter. In Northern Thailand, this member of the puff-ball family is known as het thop / เห็ดถอบ. It is boiled or eaten in curries and has a pleasant taste.
Surprisingly, the Thai also eagerly collect wild mushrooms from both the genus Russula and Amanita, which are usually ignored in the West. To the former belong a number of very bitter and mildly toxic members, and to the latter the ill-reputed Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and numerous other poisonous species. Despite this, I have seen huge piles of pink russulas for sale in local markets and at stalls along the roads. On Doi Suthep, the mountain to the west of Chiang Mai, the villagers from the Hmong settlements also used to collect them. The edible amanite het khai han / เห็ดไข่ห่าน (Amanita caesarea) in Thai: ) is even one of the most popular wild mushrooms. The colour of its cap is a beautiful yellow or orange, but when bleached by rain or sun, it vaguely resembles the death cap.
The consumption of just a few grammes of the latter will almost certainly result in a fatal intoxication. As neither cooking nor frying it ‘well done’ will neutralize the deadly toxin, the only way to prevent a fatal mishap is to make absolutely sure that no such killer mushroom is among the harvest from the forest.
Its Thai name het muak morana / เห็ดหมวกมรณะ, is apparently a literal translation of the English one, which may suggest that is not very common in Thailand. Collecting wild mushrooms is extremely popular in Thailand. One may expect a rather high incidence mushroom poisoning, including many fatalities. However, I do not know any statistics with regard to this. In Nan province I once came across billboards warning for the sale of poisonous mushrooms. This suggests that locally mushroom poisoning may be a serious problem.
In Dr Kasem Soithong’s Mushrooms and Macrofungi in Thailand, not much fuss is made about the death cap’s extreme lethality (and the danger of related species).
Following a description of its morphological details, the scholar simply remarks that you may come across it in moist places, mostly under trees, and especially during the rainy season, before informing the reader that it is poisonous.
Only the icon of a purple skull (instead of a red skull for other, less poisonous species) indicates its special status as the Number One killer.
However, many Thai seem to be well aware of the risks of eating ‘unidentified’ wild mushrooms. This is so despite their possible ignorance of the fact, or more exactly, the theory, that the Lord Buddha fell ill after eating poisonous mushrooms, and finally succumbed to the toxin.
Some Thai mushrooms are collected for medical purposes or for their psychotropic or assumed aphrodisiac effects. To the latter belongs the mysterious and stunningly beautiful Veiled Lady (Dictyophora indusiata), a relative of the European Stink Horn (Phallus spec.). Both have a conspicuous phallic appearance, which apparently is the reason why the young encapsuled ovule stages of the former, in spite of their strong odour and unpleasant flavour, are consumed as a sexual stimulant. Interestingly, in the remote past they were popular for the same reason in Europe, where they were even fed to domestic animals in order to bring them into rut. The slime on top of the mature stinkhorn was also believed to be semen of the Devil, which was eagerly collected by witches, supposedly to engender offspring in common. Recent research suggests that substances from the immature stinkhorn may even reduce cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure.
In a slightly different vein, the ling zhi (Ganoderma lucidum; in Thai: het lin chua / เห็ดหลินจือ) is believed to promote good health and longevity. The beautiful, rather hard and corky body of this member of the bracket fungi shines as if coated with shellac. Its benevolent properties were already extolled in ancient China, where it was revered and depicted in reliefs in Beijing’s Forbidden City. At present, it is widely cultivated on logs both in China and Taiwan, as well as Thailand, and much scientific research is devoted to its chemical components. In Chiang Mai’s Kat Luang (Worarot Market) near the River Ping, you will come across a selection of ling zhi, for instance, slices of its reproductive body in a small box. Boiled in water, these are said to make a miracle concoction to be taken as a medicine, but this bitter tasting bracket fungus can be digested in numerous other ways. Kat Luang is also a good place to look for a number of fungi thus far not mentioned in this piece, such as dried sponge fungi and various fresh, exotic mushrooms only recently introduced in Thailand,
Before concluding, I should also mention the small mushrooms known in Thai as het khi khwai / เห็ดขีควาย (‘buffalo dung mushroom’), notorious for their psilocybine, a hallucinogenic substance, the name of which derives from their scientific name, Psilocybe. The recreational consumption of its dried flesh has been popular among young tourists on Ko Samui and Ko Phangan for ages. The magic of Ko Phangan’s monthly Full Moon beach parties was, above all, created by the effects of psilocybine. Given the endemic use of the ‘magic mushroom’ on those islands, it was said that in some restaurants it was necessary to emphasize you wanted your omelette absolutely ‘plain’, unless you wished to start the day with a trip. The atmosphere of anarchic freedom associated with drug use was well captured in the movie The Beach, focusing on an isolated foreign community on a nearby islet. Almost ten years have passed since that film was shot in Thailand, but the consumption of the magic mushroom that flourishes on buffalo dung continues to thrive.
Nature lovers interested in photographing fungi in the wild do not need to go far from Chiang Mai. The forests on Doi Suthep boast an very species-rich mycoflora. There, you will find dozens of colourful photogenic specimens growing on fallen logs. As the area is a protected national park, though, gathering mushrooms is strictly prohibited. Incidently, one may come across large groups of coral fungi, bright red boletes, or even the fascinating veiled lady. Microfungi and molds are virtually everywhere, all being part of a complex ecosystem. One rather common, fascinating little fungi wears its tiny club-like head at the end of an irregular winding stalk as thin as a filament. It is a parasite on bugs, and at the base of the stalk, hidden in the forest litter, dig down far enough and you will eventually find the partly digested corpse of its unwitting host.
©Text and images by Sjon Hauser
The best book on Thai mushrooms is Diversity of Mushrooms and Macrofungi in Thailand written and edited by a dozen of Thai and Japanese experts, published by Kasetsat Universit, Bangkok, in 2008. It is for sale at Dokmai Garden in Hang Dong. www.dokmaigarden.co.th
Mushrooms and marcofungi in Thailand by Kasem Soithong (Siritham Offset Publishers, Ubon Ratchathan, 1994) has become a bit outdated with regard to classification and nomenclature.