When the monsoons come to Goa on the western coast of India, they bring long spells of rain, thundershowers, and emerald green cover over fields and forests. They also herald the arrival of the much-awaited olmi—wild mushrooms that are available for a few weeks in July and August each year.
The near-constant rain and high humidity makes these mushrooms grow on forest floors across the state. Villagers bordering the woods and forests of Goa harvest and sell these seasonal delicacies along streets and highways. Wrapped in a pocket of large teak leaves and covered in a thick coat of red earth, the termitomyces mushrooms, as they are also known, are as organic as you can get.
The edible mushrooms are called "termitomyces" for a reason: they grow only on termite hills in forests and orchards. This has made it nearly impossible to grow them artificially.
"Termite hills are venerated as the spiritual abode of goddess Santeri by the local people in an age-old prehistoric fertility cult of the Earth mother goddess. The cult of Santeri dates back to the Neolithic period," explains Dr. Nandkumar Kamat, a microbiologist, professor at Goa University, and leading expert on wild mushrooms of Goa. He is one of the few people in the world to have done an extensive study of these wild mushrooms and has reported over 28 species of edible termitophilic fungi.
The mythological lore once protected the sacred mounds, but an increasing demand for the mushrooms—along with skyrocketing prices—are destroying the natural ecosystem around the termite hills.
In 1992, in order to protect the world's largest gene pool of termitomyces from indiscriminate harvesting, the Government of Goa banned the picking of wild mushrooms. (It later clarified that the ban was extended only to wildlife sanctuaries in Goa.) The ban, however, has had little or no effect, as villagers and forest dwellers continue to harvest the mushrooms and sell them openly. According to Kamat, ignorance of the ecology and an assured source of income motivates forest dwellers to harvest the mushrooms.
In Panjim, Goa's capital, a neat line of hawkers display the phallic-shaped mushrooms on the pavement right outside the District and Sessions Court. Depending on the size of the mushrooms, a handful costs anything from 350 to 750 rupees (approximately US $5 to $12) for 50 mushrooms. The crazy prices don't deter true devotees, though. They queue up, bargain, and buy the mushrooms several times in a season.
At the Court, pedestrians and commuters on motorcycles slow down to check out the bounty and inquire about the price. Suman Shirwaikar, a farmer from the neighbouring village of Taleigao, has been selling edible mushrooms since "before my children were born," which is about 30 years now. She claimed to have sourced the mushrooms from Banastarim, about 16 kilometers from Panjim. She didn't pick the mushrooms herself, she said, but got them from a villager in Banastarim. "I was too scared to go into the forest myself," she said. "Who knows what is lurking in there?"
That fear of the forest doesn't stop these women from travelling dozens of kilometres to buy these mushrooms from villagers in the pre-dawn hours. They make a tidy profit from their sales, but ironically lament how the crop is getting worse each year.
For all its tastiness, cleaning the mushrooms is a chore in itself. Depending on how much a stickler for cleanliness you are, soak and rinse the mushrooms several times and end with a gentle scrub with an old toothbrush to get most of the mud out.
Locals use the mushroom as a replacement for chicken in the classic Goan xacuti (pronounced "sha-koo-tea"), a thick coconut-based gravy loaded with spices. The fleshy mushrooms are a chewy, protein-rich alternative to meat. Others like them fried, with chopped garlic and herbs. You can also make a soup with them, but the xacuti is by far the favourite.
For something different, I tried a mushroom chili fry, where the flavours of the bell peppers, chilies, and spices soaked through the mushrooms to create a tangy, satisfying dish.
Even better I didn't even have to brave a termite hill to get my hands on the mushrooms.