Finders Keepers

by Kaveri Ponnapa

I once wrote elsewhere, that I would gladly give up much of my culinary heritage for those small wonders – wild mushrooms – that grow in Coorg. From June to September, a sharp pair of eyes and a knowledge of the special places where mushrooms choose to spring up year after year will bring the most exquisite treats to your table. Down silent forest or plantation paths, feet squelching through rain-soaked earth, looking out for a flash of pale, creamy heads glimmering in the dull early morning light under the canopy of trees, we would comb the estate or adjoining grazing grounds for the prized trophies of the hunt: tiny, airy, clusters of nucche kumme, nethele kumme and alandi kumme.

Secretive and mysterious, mushrooms have a way of springing up at the same spot every year, in wooded stretches, on barks of trees and sometime, on a rise of grassy field - mushroom hunters stored away this knowledge carefully. In Coorg, we curry mushrooms, fry them lightly, pickle them, and – my favourite – roast them on an open wood fired flame or tava, and rub them with a pinch of salt and chili powder, and finish with lime juice for a heavenly snack. Some varieties of the larger mushrooms, such as nara kumme, that grows on the bark of Jamun trees, are dried and stored for use. The forest hovered close around an earthen pot of mushroom curry, and my aunt recollects how a heated knife was plunged into it before it was eaten, to chase away any forest spirits that might have followed the mushrooms home!

Over the years, the huge basket loads that made their way into kitchens dwindled, predictably, as more aggressive farming practices became popular. As the supply waned, our hunts took on the nature of stealthy, military missions, conducted with the motto that all was fair in mushroom hunting and war. My husband remembered many spots from his childhood, and we would lead a party of young nieces and nephews on early morning searches, the house dogs running ahead of us, kicking up wet mud, our rolled up trouser legs soaked to the knees with the heavy morning dew. There was always the shock of excitement, and an involuntary exclamation of triumph, when a cluster of mushrooms was spotted, the children dancing with glee, the dogs running in circles – and then, quickly to work, pulling them loose from the moist, steamy earth, fingers and nails thick with wet mud, their fragrance all around us. Sometimes the treasure lay across the fence, in a neighbour's territory. Barbed wire was carefully negotiated, stiles crossed, and when baskets filled up, shirts and dresses were turned into makeshift bags. The mushrooms were carried home in triumph, a treat for everyone. Still carrying the scent of the earth, they had a flavour deep, ancient and evocative all at the same time, and every last drop of curry was scraped up with akki ottis. In the unwritten rules of mushrooming, it was definitely, finders, keepers.

Wild mushrooms like nucche kumme, alandi kumme, or any of the Coorg wild mushrooms have to be cleaned well, as the mud clings to them. Allandi can be cut into long strips, and small buds can be kept whole. Wild mushrooms should be collected only if you have experience, as many, similar looking species are deadly poisonous. If you cannot get wild mushrooms, cultivated button mushrooms are the best substitute. Button mushrooms can be cut into half, or quarters, according to taste. The images that accompany this post are of mushrooms available in the market, and not wild mushrooms. They are, however, similar in shape and size to various wild mushrooms available in Coorg. At the bottom of the page is a rare image of wild Nara Kumme and the more common Aal or Aalandi Kumme

Thank you for visiting this page. If you read something that you enjoy, or see an image that you like, please take a moment to write a response. Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

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