“We don’t grow mushrooms, we work with them. It is more like a partnership,” says Jashid Hameed, 30, co-founder of Nuvedo Labs, a Bengaluru-based startup that works with mushrooms. In just over a year, the eight-member team at Nuvedo has not only been growing several varieties of rare and exotic mushrooms but also creating and retailing mushroom-growing kits, conducting mushroom-growing workshops across India, and organising foraging walks within the city and in Wayanad, Kerala. They are focused on growing an ecosystem of mycophiles—mushroom lovers.
Hameed and his co-founder, Prithvi Kini, 29, are self-taught mushroom cultivators who became interested in sustainable farming a few years ago and started plugging into the global movement of growing one’s own food. Around 2019, Hameed, an engineering graduate from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani, with a management degree from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore, was working in retail with a fast-fashion brand and growing increasingly uncomfortable with the unsustainable nature of the business. He and Kini, who is a philosophy graduate from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College and has worked at a bioengineering company, started talking about doing something that aligned with their values. They joined a permaculture course in Hyderabad which changed the direction of their careers.
“We started off wanting to create a sustainable farming practice but we soon realised that to do actual farming, you need access to land, generational wealth, and more resources than we had,” says Kini. “That’s when we stumbled upon mushrooms and quickly became obsessed with them. It wasn’t just the practical aspect of growing mushrooms that attracted us, though these are very important for a bootstrapped startup—mushrooms can grow everywhere, from the fanciest laboratory to a room in your house; they don’t need sunlight and rainfall; and they grow on waste materials, creating a perfect circular economy. It was also the fact that fungi are so crucial to the entire ecosystem,” she says.
Under the guidance of scientist Neeladri Chowdhury, who heads research and development at Nuvedo and works at the Bengaluru-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), the team started growing varieties of mushrooms: oyster, pink oyster, fairy white, king tuber, lion’s mane, and the medicinal reishi mushroom. They also developed neat and handy mushroom-growing kits—DIY kits created using industrial by-products like wood-shavings, straw, cardboard pulp and coffee pulp—which form the largest part of their business today. The long-term goal, however, is to extract actives from medicinal mushrooms like the reishi or Ganoderma lingzhi/lucidum. These contain diverse phytochemicals, including triterpenes, which have a molecular structure similar to that of steroid hormones and can be used alongside chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer and other ailments.
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“Mushrooms are extremely tasty, yes, but they are not just sabzi,” says Hameed. “We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring all their benefits in medicine, in nutrition…they are the perfect food, the perfect medicine, and an intelligent species with a kind of hive-mind that forms symbiotic relationships with the ecosystem,” he adds with almost religious fervour.
The team at Nuvedo is part of a new wave of mushroom cultivation in India. While commercial mushroom cultivation has been growing over the past decade, especially in states like Bihar and Maharashtra, where the government has encouraged entrepreneurship by distributing grow kits and teaching low-income, rural and semi-rural communities to grow and sell mushrooms from their backyards, experimentation has been slow. Most commercial cultivators focus on white button mushrooms, the variety most commonly available in the market.
Now a new generation of growers—passionate about fungi and ready to sink time, money and resources into experimentation and research—has, er, mushroomed in the metros.
A world of mushrooms
“It’s a world of mushrooms, we just live in it. It is true,” insists Sumit Sharan, 35, a management systems engineer-turned-farmer. He’s the man behind Shroomery, a one-stop shop for all things mushroom in the National Capital Region (NCR). We are meeting at his five-acre farm on the outskirts of Delhi: 3,000 sq. ft is dedicated to growing eight varieties of mushroom, including shiitake, pink oyster, portobello and cremini.
Since 2018, Sharan has spent most of his waking hours studying, learning and understanding the fleshy organism, which is neither plant nor animal, and the thousands of varieties that have confounded humans since ancient times (there are close to 14,000 varieties known to humans, with research suggesting there are 150,000 more yet to be even described).
While Sharan never “loved-loved” mushrooms, he decided to build a business around them after noticing that chefs were keen to procure more varieties of mushroom but that there weren’t enough growers offering anything beyond button mushrooms.
“I wanted to get into agriculture; it just fascinated me. But the idea wasn’t to grow onions and tomatoes. I wanted to create something that was niche, and required less investment and space. Mushrooms were it,” says Sharan, a Duke university graduate who used to work with Standard Chartered bank and Airbnb in Singapore, the US and India.
“The chefs were using whatever mushrooms they were able to buy in markets like INA (in south Delhi). There were hardly any growers offering specific or exotic varieties,” he says.
Smelling an opportunity, Sharan decided to enrol in a course at the Directorate of Mushroom Research in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. A few months later, in 2018, he started growing pink and white oyster mushrooms in a room on his farm and took them to chefs to gauge the response. “I ‘cold-walked’ up to them and requested them to try the mushrooms. Many liked them; some didn’t entertain me,” says Sharan. The experiment was successful enough to help him decide to start Shroomery.
Bengaluru-based mushroom entrepreneur Namrata Goenka of Green Apron has a similar story. An enthusiastic gardener, Goenka, who has a master’s degree in biochemistry and a law degree, was growing all sorts of vegetables in her terrace garden and stumbled upon mushrooms by chance.
Wanting to learn how to grow varieties that weren’t widely available in the market at that point (around four years ago) or were selling at eye-rolling prices at gourmet stores like Godrej’s Nature’s Basket, she enrolled in a course at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru. Then she bought a mushroom-growing unit from someone who was selling their business and was successful in harvesting gourmet varieties like shiitake, king oyster, pink oyster and elm oyster.
She grows seven varieties in a 300 sq. ft room, harvesting 5-10kg of different varieties every day. Her customers include young chefs in the city who prefer to work with fresh, local produce, such as Kavan Kuttappa of Naru Noodle Bar and Kanishka Sharma of the Navu Project, as well as individual buyers she connects with via four WhatsApp groups.
Both Goenka and Sharan were pretty sure they didn’t want to grow the ubiquitous button mushroom. “Buttons are really popular because they are easy to grow (many growers have even mechanised the process) and have a ready market—they also have a longer shelf-life, taste more ‘neutral’, and Indians are more comfortable consuming them because of familiarity,” says Goenka.
Most small producers also point to the fact that button mushrooms are grown using chemical fungicides (to kill undesirable contaminants) like formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, while companies like Nuvedo, Green Apron and Shroomery do so organically, without using chemical sprays, and in temperature- and environment-controlled units that are kept free of contaminants. “Mushrooms are the cleanest food you can eat,” says Goenka.
Of course, growing mushrooms is not all that easy, especially since you are trying to replicate natural processes in a small room. In the wild, mushrooms grow overnight. Some varieties only grow when thunder strikes (gucchi or morel); some when a tree bark is hit (shiitake). But as innocent as they may seem with their archetypal umbrella and cigarette-like roots, they are anything but powerless. Ongoing research shows there are mushroom varieties that can fight Alzheimer’s, arthritis, even cancer.
Small wonder then that the global market for edible fungi was expected to hit the $69 billion (around ₹5.5 trillion) mark within the next two years, biologist Merlin Sheldrake noted in the 2020 book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.
Another reason for the growing demand for mushrooms is the increased interest in meat alternatives, says Sharan. Traditionally, mushrooms had never been a major part of mainstream cuisine, except among foraging communities that have always had extensive knowledge of edible mushrooms. Now, he adds, people are more well-travelled and “want to experience food like they did in, say, Florence or Kyoto. They are aware of the different kinds and tastes of mushrooms.”
At present, Shroomery is doing sales of 2,000-2,500kg of fresh mushrooms every month (all varieties combined). About half of this sale is of portobellos; among the rest, shiitake and king oyster are catching up fast. Each box, depending on the variety and weight (200-250g), costs ₹250-750.
“Mushrooms haven’t yet got the recognition they deserve, especially in India. Do you know that after a good rain, the ground below us becomes white because of the growth of mushrooms? It’s a little crazy that we are, in a way, surrounded by mushrooms but they are invisible to us,” says Sharan. “Hopefully, not for long.”
A connected ecosystem
National Horticultural Board (NHB) figures show the total production of mushrooms in the top 10 mushroom-growing states rose from 147.99 metric tonnes in 2020 to 177.85 MT in 2021 and 200.35 MT in 2022—most of the growth, of course, has been in button mushrooms.
There are many categories of players. There is large-scale organised farming in states like Bihar (which produces 10% of the total mushroom grown in the country; data from the NHB says the state produced 28,000 tonnes in 2021-22). There are micro entrepreneurs who grow mushrooms in their homes and supply them to local markets and to industries that use mushrooms in the production of edible products like pickles, papads and mushroom powders, as well as non-edible products like vegan leather, packaging products and skincare products.
Then there are the gourmet growers—startups that largely supply edible mushrooms to individuals and restaurants and are identified by their branded businesses, their social media savvy and willingness to experiment with different varieties.
Investment may range from ₹10,000-15,000 to ₹15-20 lakh for commercial farming, returns could be three times as much within a few months.
There is growing awareness of the therapeutic properties of mushrooms such as lion’s mane and Ganoderma lucidum—and more cultivators catering to this growing market. “Ganoderma contains more than 400 chemical constituents, including triterpenes, polysaccharides, nucleotides, alkaloids, steroids, amino acids, fatty acids and phenols. These show medicinal properties such as immunomodulatory, anti-hepatitis, anti-tumour, antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-HIV, antimalarial, hypoglycaemic and anti-inflammatory properties,” wrote Arvind Bijalwan and Kalpana Bahuguna in an article published in the Down To Earth magazine earlier this year.
The real growth, then, is in the market for nutritional supplements and mushrooms used in herbal and medicinal products. The appetite for mushrooms—the actual, real appetite for what lands on your plate—is still limited, with most Indians still wary of consuming something they find unfamiliar and inconclusively vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Still, there is a niche market among urban consumers who are sold on its umami, earthy taste and versatility, and want to try new varieties.
“Some people who come to our restaurant, mostly vegetarians, are wary of trying out mushrooms but we try to convince them—and I have to say that if they do give it a shot, 95% of them change their minds,” says Johnson Ebenezer, 42, chef-partner at the Bengaluru-based restaurant Farmlore. The farm-to-table restaurant in north Bengaluru gets its mushrooms from a small startup called The Fungamental Co., which supplies them with four-five varieties, including pink oysters, lion’s mane, shiitake and king oyster, three times a week.
At the 18-seater Farmlore, the produce dictates the menu, says Ebenezer. Over the past few months, they have had at least one mushroom dish in their 10-course degustation menu for both lunch and dinner, such as the Fungamental, a savoury dish made with ragi sourdough, hazelnut and three varieties of mushroom—lion’s mane, king oyster and pink oyster.
“Mushrooms are spectacularly easy to cook and they have become an integral part of our menus. We use the trimmings in soups and reductions, and the rest are simply wood-fired or stir-fried with just some garlic and fresh herbs,” says Ebenezer. “Using mushrooms is a great way to introduce umami into vegetarian dishes, and we also use mushroom embers (slow-burning the mushroom stalks and stems) as a bed over which we roast lamb.”
The Fungamental Co. was conceived in 2017 and launched in 2019. The founding team comprises mycologists, microbiologists and chemists “but we are, most importantly, foodies who are all a little in love with what we are growing,” says Joshua Rao, a founding member of The Fungamental Co. They grow organic, exotic mushrooms to order, including varieties like lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), golden oyster (Pleurotus citrinopileatus), pearl oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus), pink oyster (Pleurotus djamor), King Trumpet oyster (Pleurotus eryngii) and Golden Enokitake. “The rise in demand at the moment is a confluence of food artistry, ecological consciousness around meat production and basic consumer awareness about general health and nutritional benefits,” says Rao.
Earlier this year, Bengaluru-based Nakul Kumbharen, 27, and Rahul Menon, 25, both formerly from the hospitality industry, started a rather unique project: RoomOfShrooms. They lease empty apartments and grow mushrooms there, selling what they grow—mainly different varieties of oyster mushrooms—to local markets. They also make ready-to-fruit, DIY mushroom kits. “The per capita consumption of mushrooms in India is less than 90g per year, while in countries like China and the US, Netherlands, it’s over 3kg. So there is a huge potential here, and also a way to fill nutrition gaps,” says Kumbharen.
A variety of uses
Mushroom’s potential is certainly not invisible to the international fashion world. A few years ago, Adidas Originals launched a shoe made using mushroom leather. In May, British designer Stella McCartney, known for animal-friendly high fashion, launched a collection of handbags and clothes made from vegan, lab-grown Mylo mushroom leather. “Mylo is a soft, substantial, sustainable leather alternative made from mycelium, the infinitely renewable underground root system of mushrooms (and is) remarkably similar to animal products, with fewer environmental impacts,” notes the designer’s website.
With sustainability in focus in the fashion world, more brands are exploring the possibilities of mushroom leather. Veganologie , the first Dubai-based green accessories brand that caters to customers globally, including India, is one. Its 28-year-old founder, Angana Maheshwari, hopes to launch mushroom leather-based products by the start of next year.
“It’s getting bigger by the day. I know many large brands that are soon going to come out with mushroom-leather based fashion items. It’s less of a trend and more like a need of the hour. It’s more expensive than leather but it’s a viable alternative that can be moulded in any way you want. I am just surprised that we didn’t realise mushrooms’ potential all this while,” says Maheshwari.
In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Phool, started by Ankit Agarwal and Prateek Kumar to use temple flowers to create products like incense cones, is now producing mushroom leather in a 9,000 sq. ft factory. By combining mycelium with bacterial culture and flowers of all kinds, they are able to make 2x2ft sized sheets in 10-12 days. At the moment, they are working with international fashion brands to create accessories like bags, wallets and clothes.
“It’s a mat-like structure that undergoes vegetable tanning and some other processes before becoming fungi leather,” explains Nachiket Kuntla, 29, head of research and development at Phool.
One of the reasons mushroom leather has remained unexplored, he says, is lack of technology and interest. “Biotechnology is a recent thing here. I mean, India has more engineers and doctors, but hardly any people in biotechnology. It will take us 10-15 years to get to where the West is right now in this field.”
Delhi-based mechanical engineer Arpit Dhupar agrees. He is the founder of Dharaksha Eco Solutions, which manufactures 100,000-150,000 storage boxes a month using mycelium in a 14,000 sq. ft factory in Ballabgarh, Haryana. Each box, meant for consumer goods, costs ₹10-200, depending on size. His vision is to replace thermocol, which takes 2,000 years to decompose, with mycelium boxes, created in collaboration with the Regional Centre for Biotechnology in Faridabad. These mycelium boxes turn into compost within 60 days.
“If a mycelium box costs ₹10, a thermocol version will be ₹9,” claims Dhupar, 29, who’s in the process of getting a patent for his mycelium box recipe that includes the mushroom root culture, stubble and a few other things. “It’s half patent and half trade secret,” he says, adding that there’s enough interest in the market to make him speed up production. “Mushrooms are the fastest decomposers. It makes sense if you are trying to be green. It’s a magical being,” says Dhupar. “Do you know entire forests are connected via mycelium and trees talk to each other through them? If a tree is cut, other trees would know through the mycelium. We have barely scratched the surface in realising the true power of mushrooms.”