Fantastic fungi and where to find them: Mycophiles in India
A new crop of mushroom-lovers are promoting a wide variety in India, as health food, health supplement and even eco-friendly packaging. They want you to know that The Last of Us has it all wrong, so wrong.
As they creep and swell and send tentacles out in search of new sources of nourishment, fungi are the source of horror and fear that drive the plot in The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic game-based series starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
In the real world, mycophiles — people who love to hunt for, grow and consume fungi — are giggling at all the drama. Even when tended to with great care, fungi have a tendency to collapse from heat and exhaustion, from temperature fluctuations, from too much humidity or too little.
The idea that a variant of the cordyceps fungi could infect a human and then somehow control their movements, as depicted in the show, is absurd, says Jashid Hameed, co-founder of Nuvedo Labs. The Bengaluru-based startup grows mushrooms for eventual use in pain-relief and nutrient boosters.
Hameed is among a new crop of mycophiles cultivating and promoting a range of mushrooms as health food, health supplement, even as eco-friendly packaging. Grow The Fun Guy by Adam Shamsudeen in Kerala is a year old and offers kits for easy-to-grow organic oyster mushrooms that can be harvested within 10 days (in exotic pink and white varieties). Nuvedo, launched in 2021, has been growing oyster, pink oyster, fairy white, king tuber, lion’s mane and the medicinal reishi. Shroomery in NCR and Green Apron in Bengaluru, both launched in 2018, supply local chefs and restaurants. And Dharaksha, launched in 2020 in NCR, creates eco-friendly packaging.
“The mushroom grown most widely in India is the button variety, and it takes a lot of chemicals to grow it at scale. That’s partly why it has so little flavour,” says Sumit Sharan of Shroomery. “For a chef, any other mushroom is better, and chefs were widely importing varieties in dried form from places such as Thailand. So when I decided to follow my passion for food entrepreneurship, I made up by mind to focus on this gap in the market.” The former business development executive with AirBnB now farms eight varieties, none of them button.
He grew his first crop at a friend’s farm in Manesar, and initially sent his produce out for free to chefs across NCR. “Our mission is to have chefs serve a range of homegrown fungi, so that people can try an interesting new mushroom at a good restaurant and then buy it themselves and experiment with it at home,” Sharan says.
He currently supplies to restaurants such as Ping’s Bia Hoi, Perch and Omo in NCR and a few restaurants in Pune and Bengaluru. Individual buyers make up 20% of order volumes, he says. He has a 3,000-sq-ft mushroom patch on a plot not far from his friend’s in Manesar, and a team of 16 tending to it.
The two big challenges mycophiles face, they say, are scaling up without using chemical boosting agents; and finding the right manpower, which is vital given that little of the business can be automated.
Shroomery sells about 10 kg of mushrooms a day. Namrata (who goes by only one name) of Green Apron supplies 400 kg monthly to retail buyers and restaurants in Bengaluru. “We have a small but loyal consumer base,” she says. But different varieties must be kept at different levels of humidity, they must be monitored closely and harvested twice a day. Even a small amount of automation would help, Namrata says. But at these scales, the systems aren’t available.
She wants people to turn to ’shrooms for their health benefits, as meat substitutes, and as easy-to-make meals, so she is experimenting with the pioppino, king oyster, lion’s mane and 12 other varieties.
Getting the message out about new varieties is vital, says Hameed. “This is why we also conduct workshops, foraging walks and sell mushroom-growing kits. Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and we even have our own names for certain varieties – the termitomyces is called arikkoon in Malayalam and olmi in Konkani – but we’ve lost most of our traditional links with fungi.”
Dharaksha, meanwhile, is trying to forge new ones. The company set up a production unit in December 2021 and has begun sending out samples of its fungi-based eco-friendly packaging to small and medium-sized industries. “One of the building blocks of mushrooms is mycelium, which solidifies to become something similar to thermocol. Thermocol is so non-biodegradable, it is one of the great eco-evils of our time. Mycelium packaging solves that problem as it breaks down completely in 60 days,” says co-founder Arpit Dhupar.
Miles away, in the Himalayas, the cordyceps surfaces again. Every year, foragers set out in search of a variant here that is the world’s most expensive fungus. The Ophiocordyceps sinensis can fetch between ₹1 lakh and ₹5 lakh a kg, because it is rare and widely sought in the pharma industry, mainly for use in aphrodisiacs and painkillers.
This variant does grow inside its hosts, usually moth larvae, and eats them alive. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis comes even closer to the plot of The Last of Us. It invades the host’s body (often an ant) and then uses it to move around and infect others of the same species. It wipes out entire settlements in this way. Whole anthills lie deserted, and then the cordyceps stretches out its tentacles to seek a new host.
Click here for more on what it would take for the cordyceps to infect a human, and what the result of such an infection could be. Spoiler alert: It’s highly unlikely to be an apocalypse.