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     Volume 4 Issue 20 | November 5, 2004 |

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The Mushrooming Craze

Imran H. Khan

Two months back a couple of young men ventured into a relatively new realm, an area which had yet to find its roots in Dhaka. It was the hobby of mushrooming, the pursuit of growing mushrooms. The avant-garde pair are Shameem and Ashim, both university students and eager to share their vision with the rest of the country.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary a mushroom is any of various fleshy fungi of the class Basidiomycota, characteristically having an umbrella-shaped cap borne on a stalk, especially any of the edible kinds, as those of the genus Agaricus. To continue with our pursuit of general knowledge, mushrooms are the soft delicate white fruit body of fleshy fungi. The real plant is the microscopic fine thread-like body that grows on the substratum or under the surface of soil, depending upon the variety. The two main categories of mushrooms that are particularly relevant for lay people to know about are the edible and "the other type." The "other type" is only for those who find good health and life a burden. The poisonous variety of mushrooms is commonly known as toadstools.

"We produce our own mushroom," says a confident Shameem, "We have a farm in Agargaon where we grow them in a properly controlled environment." Shameem and Ashim have started production in their own little hatchery. Taking care of their supply side chain was easy. The harder part involved getting a country totally dependent on fish, meat and vegetables to change its taste buds and acquire a liking for this fascinating fungi. For many Bangladeshis, mushrooms have been associated in the past with frogs and umbrellas, neither considered very palatable. The desire to familiarise the city with the wonders of the mushroom gave birth to the company "Smiling Mushroom" and the slogan of the innovative duo is "The Fresh Mushroom Supplier At Your Door".

If the present-day Dhakaite seems 'fungally' disinclined, this epicurean delight is enormously popular in the rest of the world. There are companies specialising in using gourmet and medicinal mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people. There are mushroom shows and shops and magazines specialising in skills to grow your own mushrooms. As for websites and articles on mushroom and its cultivation, they have mushroomed all around. You don't have to know Mycology (the study of the fungi) or be a mycologist (a botanist who studies fungi) or even see the mushroom through eyes of fungal lust. If you like experimenting with the wonders that nature has provided and titillating your taste buds at the same time, mushrooms are for you.

Mushrooms have been around for a long while and during the ancient Greek and Roman times, they were considered delicacies that went hand in hand with only the royal classes. The edible mushroom with its high source of proteins, carbohydrates, salts and a variety of vitamins provides a good addition to one's daily diet. If we were to place it on the food-chain, it could easily find a comfortable spot right between veggies and meat products. Due to high protein and mineral contents and low caloric value, it is recommended to heart patients.

Mushroom cultivation in Bangladesh is a relatively recent phenomenon and only a few small-scale farms are pursuing it. The A-B-C of growing mushroom is mainly in getting the right raw materials and setting the right environment ... something like a 'mood' music. The first thing that we need is a seed (or spawn) which basically comes in a polythene packet. Raw materials for the seed includes a composite mixture of rice straw and husk, waste from cotton and saw-dust. Other agro-residues are required in certain breeds of mushrooms. Each seed lasts for almost 90 days and during that period, each single seed produces 200 to 250 grammes of mushroom. They can be plucked every two to three days. Mushrooms are usually grown, after slicing that polythene packet and then leaving them in thatched huts, in a temperature of about 24°C while in infancy and about 15°C while it's in its fruiting stage.

During Ramadan, Shameem and Ashim have opened up a little iftar stall beside Prescription Aid to familiarise the travellers of Banani Number 11 Road with mushrooms. "Smiling Mushroom" is what the big banner that decorates the little stall they have set up, reads. And take one guess as to what the key ingredient in all their items is. "I went to the barber's shop one day and asked my barber if he knew what a mushroom was, out of utter curiosity," says a well-groomed Shameem, flaunting his haircut. "I had to spend a half hour lecturing the barber about the positive sides of mushroom."

Let's move a little on to the menu of Smiling Mushroom. The first item that stands out is the mushroom-fish-fingers, a little less filling, especially at iftar time. Well, this was something like an amuse-bouche rather than the hors-d'oeuvre, but the taste simply sets you in the mood for what you are about to encounter next. Other items in the list are mushroom prawn, sizzling mushroom chicken shashlik and mushroom beef shashlik, chicken mushroom chop, beef mushroom kebab and many more. To finish this wonderful cuisine line-up off, there is mushroom jilapi. I tried it and well it was…different.

If after reading this article you go wild about mushrooms, be warned. Do not pick your own unless you can positively identify the edible from the poisonous one. Of the twenty mushroom species growing wild in Bangladesh, five or six are poisonous. The consumption of the wrong mushroom can be hazardous to your health. Leave it to the experts or just queue up at the Smiling Mushroom.


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