Mushrooms on My Mind, Naturally

It’s hard to imagine another form of earthly life that has affected human beings as much as the kingdom Fungi. Seeking the taste and perceived medicinal benefits of mushrooms,human beings followed a path from superstition to science: from foraging to farming, from medieval old wives’ tales to modern clinical trials, and from food eaten to ward off starvation to haute cuisine. In other words, the three Cs – cuisine, cultivation and canning – in large measure drove the twentieth-century shift from mycophobia to mycophilia, at least in the West. ~ Mushroom: A Global History*

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Dried shiitake, Singapore (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I looked, of course, for mushrooms everywhere I went, but I didn’t find many of them, at least not in the part of Indonesia where I was, North Sulawesi. One sighting of a shelf fungus (see below) in the rain forest and that was it, none in the open-air markets. A quick perusal of English-language Indonesian cookbooks brought up few or no recipes using mushrooms. Even Sri Owens’s book on regional Indonesian cooking scored no hits.

Mushrooms banyan tree
The only fungi I saw growing anywhere in North Sulawesi. This shelf-like fungus made itself at home on a banyan tree (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Yet in the enormous, modern Hypermarket in Manado, I saw rows of vacuum-packed pouches filled with button mushrooms, looking like sacks of candy.

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Mushrooms for sale in huge Hypermarket in Manado (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

These pouches, backlit by fluorescent lighting, testify to a certain truth: somebody is cooking with these modernistic, if not sterile, cousins of mushrooms from the field and the forest.

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Variety of mushroom products for sale in Hypermarket in Manado (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

One of the many onerous and unpleasant tasks that beset an author, at least these days anyway, is that of publicist, promoting their work by any means possible. Because I find self-promotion somewhat difficult, I am sharing these pictures from my recent trip to Indonesia and Singapore, as a way of getting the word out about my upcoming book, Mushroom: A Global History. None of these pictures appear in the book.

*A press release from Reaktion Books reads as follows:

Known as the meat of the vegetable world, mushrooms have their ardent
supporters as well as their fierce detractors. Hobbits go crazy over them,
while Diderot thought they should be “sent back to the dung heap where
they are born.” In Mushroom, Cynthia D. Bertelsen examines the colorful
history of these divisive edible fungi. As she reveals, their story is fraught
with murder and accidental death, hunger and gluttony, sickness and
health, religion and war. Some cultures equate them with the rottenness of
life while others delight in cooking and eating them. And then there are
those “magic” mushrooms, which some people link to ancient religious
To tell this story, Bertelsen travels to the nineteenth century, when
mushrooms entered the realm of haute cuisine after millennia of being
picked from the wild for use in everyday cooking and medicine. She
describes how this new demand drove entrepreneurs and farmers to
seek methods for cultivating mushrooms, including experiments in
domesticating the highly sought after but elusive truffles, and she explores
the popular pastime of mushroom hunting, with numerous historic and
contemporary recipes. Packed with images of mushrooms from around the
globe, this savory book will be essential reading for fans of this surprising,
earthy fungus.
Mushroom sign Singapore rs

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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