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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fungal Food Facts

We have an odd cultural relationship with fungi. On the outset, most people thing of fungi as disease causing microbes that cause infection (think athlete's foot). Truth is, fungi are a very diverse group of organisms that play a lot of roles in our lives. Of course, we eat them, and they form an essential part of almost every cuisine on the planet.

Pictured above are the gifts of foraged fungi I got from friends.

Perhaps the most visible form of fungi consumption are mushrooms. Most folks are used to the common cultivated white button mushroom, although an increasing number of varieties are entering the US market. From Japan, you get the shiitake, the maitake, the elusive matsutake, and the white spindly enoki. Europeans have long foraged and consumed mushrooms from truffles, porcini, cepes, and morels, to name a few. And then there's the use of portobellos (the mature cap of the cremini) as a grilled "burger".

In fact, mushrooms are often used as the "meaty" substitute for meat in vegetarian cooking. They convey that umami flavor that is inherent in cooking meat. I find this amusing, because, try as you might, fungi are not plants. There's an old discredited idea that fungi are just defective plants that lost their ability to photosynthesize, but with modern genomic tools, we know that fungi are really close cousins to...animals. That explains why there are very few effective anti fungal compounds: our close biological kinship means that there are significant side effects when used as drugs. They taste meaty because, well, they kind of are meat.

Here's another fact: mushrooms are usually the visible reproductive parts of the organisms. The main body of the fungus is in the hyphal mat usually underground, but we get to lop off the genitals and eat them :).

Oh, and let's not forget our friends in the bottle: harnessing single celled fungi are key to the development of a lot of modern cuisine. I speak of course, of yeast. The forefront of fermenting, most yeast used today are from one basic species, that make alcohol and carbon dioxide, to produce beer, wine, ale, and my favorite, bread. Almost every culture on the planet has found some way of putting yeast together with their local carbohydrate source to make beer (or some fermented liquid). So raise a glass to our boozy brethren, and their anaerobic waste products.

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