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Mush­room Umami

Chefs love mush­rooms. Es­pe­cially Fiji’s new har­vest of fresh Asian mush­rooms. They are beau­ti­ful to the eye and eas­ily adapt to a wide range of cuisines, but most im­por­tantly, mush­rooms be­have in the kitchen much the same way that meats do. They change their char­ac­ter in re­sponse to dif­fer­ent cook­ing tech­niques and they ex­press dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties depend­ing on the in­gre­di­ents with which they are paired. There is sound sci­ence be­hind th­ese ef­fects. Mush­rooms are not veg­eta­bles. They are fungi and their bio­chem­i­cal struc­ture has more in com­mon with an­i­mals in some ways than with veg­eta­bles. Mush­rooms have a broad range of amino acids, as an­i­mal pro­teins do, and this pro­vides them with savoury flavour. They are high in glu­tamic acid, an amino acid that is nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring in glu­ta­mates and acts as a flavour en­hancer. Mush­rooms are also rich in nu­cleo­tides, com­pounds that are syn­er­gis­tic with glu­ta­mates. To­gether, th­ese char­ac­ter­is­tics make up umami, the savoury flavour com­po­nent that is now widely ac­cepted as the fifth taste sen­sor along with salty, bit­ter, sweet, and sour. Up un­til re­cently, the only mush­rooms you would get in a Fiji came from a tin, re­hy­drated from a packet or im­ported from a farm some­where in Aus­tralia or New Zealand. The com­mon but­ton mush­room needs a colder, damp cli­mate and costs up­wards of $80-90 per kilo, but Asian mush­room va­ri­eties like oys­ter, enoki and shi­itake, can be grown in plas­tic jars or con­tain­ers filled with grass or other fi­brous sub­strates – no soil needed. Asian mush­rooms are es­pe­cially good for our health; a fact steeped in Chi­nese tra­di­tional medicine. They have anti-in­flam­ma­tory, an­tibac­te­rial, an­tivi­ral, and im­mune-en­hanc­ing prop­er­ties, in sim­i­lar ways to virgin co­conut oil, but ‘shrooms are def­i­nitely tastier. Two farms, the Chi­nese Le­galega Re­search Sta­tion at Le­galega, Nadi, and the lo­cal fam­ily-run Bula Mush­rooms in Suva of Vinit and his wife Chaya, have suc­cess­fully cul­ti­vated sev­eral va­ri­eties of the po­tent Asian mush­rooms; and they are divine. Win­ston knocked th­ese two farms out for a while but they have both an­nounced on so­cial me­dia that their first har­vests have come – and gone. Each fungi va­ri­ety has dif­fer­ent medic­i­nal prop­er­ties, as if Mother Na­ture in­tended them as a phar­macy of health reme­dies. They are meaty and fla­vor­ful, and also con­tain a sub­stance called er­i­tade­nine, which en­cour­ages the ab­sorp­tion of choles­terol, thereby low­er­ing the amount cir­cu­lat­ing in the blood. Along with the B-vi­ta­mins and min­er­als that all mush­rooms con­tain, the shi­itake con­tains all eight amino acids, un­usual for a plant. Shi­itake have a dis­tinct strong fla­vor, which if you find too strong, can be tem­pered with soy, mirin and sugar mari­nade be­fore cook­ing. With a name sound­ing very sim­i­lar to a Fi­jian male, Inoke, enoki mush­rooms are quite dif­fer­ent from shi­itake mush­rooms in ap­pear­ance and fla­vor. Th­ese long, white mush­rooms have a very mild fla­vor and are be­lieved to be good for fight­ing the ef­fects of cancer treat­ments like chemo­ther­apy, and are said to be es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive for those fight­ing prostate cancer and lym­phoma. They are also ap­par­ently good for en­hanc­ing the im­mune sys­tem by detox­i­fy­ing the body. On top of all th­ese ben­e­fits, enoki mush­rooms are also a great source of iron and when not over­cooked, look fan­tas­tic on the din­ner plate as a tiny fungi for­est. Of all the Asian mush­rooms com­monly eaten, oys­ter

mush­rooms stand out as ex­cep­tional al­lies for im­prov­ing hu­man health and an ideal al­ter­na­tive to meat. Th­ese mush­rooms en­joy a ter­rific rep­u­ta­tion as the eas­i­est to cul­ti­vate, richly nu­tri­tious and medic­i­nally sup­port­ive. Their name comes from their look, not taste and they also come in dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes. Not only are they low in calo­ries, but also fat-free, choles­terol-free, gluten-free and very low in sodium. They are also high in pro­tein, fi­bre and iron, and con­tain sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of zinc, potas­sium, se­le­nium, cal­cium, phos­pho­rus, folic acid, and vi­ta­mins B1, B3, B5 and B12, plus vi­ta­min C and vi­ta­min D. They need very lit­tle cook­ing time and can be added to stir fry, grilled for sal­ads or thrown into a curry at the very last mo­ment. Th­ese ‘magic mush­rooms’ are not for par­ty­ing, they are a medic­i­nal gift from Mother Na­ture. The rein­tro­duc­tion of fresh Asian mush­rooms to Fiji not only gives the chefs an­other lo­cal in­gre­di­ent to add to their menus, but has given Fi­jians a tasty weapon in the fight against non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases and also helps to a re­duced im­port bill. You won’t al­ways find th­ese magic mush­rooms at shops or mar­kets so make con­tact with the farm­ers di­rectly on Face­book and put your name down for the next har­vest. If you miss out, you can re­place to­day’s recipes with tinned or re­hy­drated mush­rooms, but noth­ing beats the taste, tex­ture and medic­i­nal value of fresh Asian mush­rooms. So get in quick!

Who can re­sist a brown mush­room, chive and pasta dish

Cul­ti­vated mush­room tart with goats cheese - medicine in a meal

Some­thing as sim­ple as mush­rooms on toast is just divine

Du­ruka pairs well with oys­ter mush­rooms poached in fresh co­conut milk

Miso-braised egg­plant with shimeji mush­rooms

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