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Taste the thunder in these mushrooms

As the monsoon arrives, thunder mushrooms are foraged along India’s south-west coast, as well as its central and eastern regions

Thunder mushrooms add a kick of umami to the simplest of dishes
Thunder mushrooms add a kick of umami to the simplest of dishes (iStockphoto)

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It has an earthy flavour and reminds me of the rains,” says Garima Tiwari, describing the taste of thunder mushrooms. The Pune, Maharashtra-based lawyer hails from Chhattisgarh and the fungi are a monsoon delicacy in her home state. They get their name from the season when they are available, for they are foraged from the forest areas of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Karnataka when the first rains arrive, replete with thunder and lightning.

On the south-west coast, they grow in the moist soil around big rocks; in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, they are found under sal trees. They are known as sal boda in Chhattisgarh, rungda in Jharkhand and gud gud alambe in Karnataka’s Tulu Nadu.

There was a time when thunder mushrooms, which grow in the wild and add a kick of umami to the simplest of dishes, were prized only by Adivasis; in Jharkhand, they are even known as vegetarian country chicken. Today, though, their fame extends beyond these communities.

Also read: 7 chicken recipes in 30 minutes or less

The season for this hyperlocal produce is short, however. The journey of the south-west monsoon is, in fact, a useful barometer of where you will find them, and when. The season is already over on the south-west coast. In Jharkhand, thunder mushrooms are usually available from mid-June till July.

Sourcing and cleaning them is difficult, shelf life is just a couple of days and demand, high. Yet the areas where they grow are shrinking and those with the skills to forage them are fewer in number—not surprisingly, then, prices start from 600-700 a kilogram in Tulu Nadu. In Ranchi’s weekly markets and haats, which also get a supply from West Bengal areas bordering the state, prices can go up to 2,000.

A month ago, I came across an Instagram post on gud gud alambe on the page @AkshathaNayak. Nayak is a doctor who documents the food and customs of her Konkani community on her page. She had uploaded a reel on the wild mushroom and shared a snippet of a recipe made with Mangalore cucumber. The detailed recipe is available on her mother’s YouTube page, Karavali Khadya By Jaya.

She loves this mushroom, shaped like a ball rather than the usual umbrella, but wouldn’t be able to identify it in the wild. “On the south-west coast, they grow around stones near streams in dense forests. To us, they look like stones; only an expert eye can tell the difference,” she says. The mushrooms are also called kalla lambu, which loosely translates to “like a stone” in Kannada.

Every year, Nayak and her family look forward to this exotic ingredient, brought to the local market by foragers and available for a small window of about two weeks. They make for precious gifts—and dishes. Nayak’s family makes a simple dish of gud gud alambe with grated coconut, Mangalore cucumbers and onions. She says her US-based sister tried it with button mushrooms—it just wasn’t the same.

A few weeks ago, her father gifted a few mushrooms to her aunt, who was visiting from Mumbai. She avoids onion and garlic in food but she made an exception for this dish, sharing photographs on WhatsApp, saying she got to taste it after 25 long years. “Thunder mushrooms are fascinating,” smiles Nayak. “It’s a beloved ingredient in our community.”

Keeping it simple

The mushrooms have to be dug out of the top soil and cleaned thoroughly. For cooking, the outer skin is scraped off, revealing a crunchy coating that is cut to get to a spongy core. It’s the spongy core that’s used in Konkani dishes. “The whole process is five times more tedious than peeling garlic,” says Nayak.

Ajam Emba, a tribal cuisine-focused restaurant in Jharkhand’s capital, Ranchi, serves a thick gravy-based dish made with thunder mushrooms in season. Restaurant founder Aruna Tirkey, a rural development professional who is trying to popularise Adivasi dishes from communities like Oraon and Sora, says only the Adivasis know where to find them and how to dig them out without damaging them. “They say, ‘Chalo abhi raat mein badal garaj raha hai, toh subah rungda chunne jayenge’ (there’s thunder tonight, we can go and dig up thunder mushrooms in the morning),” says Tirkey.

The Adivasis keep their dish simple, stir-frying the mushrooms in mustard oil with chopped garlic and onion. Tirkey’s mother prepares it with chicken too, though she cooks it with onions in a north-Indian style gravy at Aram Emba. Onion, in fact, is common to the preparation everywhere. Not coconut, though: That is added in Tulu Nadu, not Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Tiwari fries the mushrooms with onions and garlic, adding a masala of ground raw rice, powdered, dry-roasted cumin and coriander seeds. “They are slightly chewier than button mushrooms. To me, they are quite special.”

Over-harvesting, says Tirkey, is taking its toll. On the south-west coast, shrinking forests and monoculture are overwhelming the mushrooms. Nayak explains: “Our region is known for endemic species of plants, birds and animals. Many animals and foraged foods are extinct already. It is an eco-sensitive zone but people are not sensitive.”

Tiwari, away from home for the first time since the pandemic, says skilled foragers too are disappearing slowly. “Very few people know where to forage and how to pull them out without ruining them,” she says, hoping she will be able to get a packet of her favourite mushrooms from home.

Also read: How to use makhana in everyday recipes

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