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Even if you say that you do not like mushrooms – a common enough position with many Indians – and never order them at restaurants or cook them at home, there’s probably one mushroom you eat far more often than you realise. When Indians eat out, we tend to eat Chinese. And Chinese restaurants in India – like Chinese restaurants elsewhere in the world – use mushrooms in cooking. You’ll find a black, slightly spongy slice of something mushroomy in your hot and sour soup; you’ll bite into a mushroom that is playing a co-starring role in some stir fry and if you extend your gastronomic horizons to Thai food then you’ll find mushrooms in many, many dishes, from curries to salads.

The reason most of us do not see this as mushroom-eating is because of the identity of the mushroom involved.

When it comes to buying mushrooms, we often go by appearance rather than taste. We stick to those clean-cut white button mushrooms, perhaps a bit intimidated by the wilder characters in the fungus family. But it's worth getting to know all those odd-looking mushrooms -- they can really add taste and sophistication to your cooking.

When we think of mushrooms, we think of the white mushrooms of Western cookery – what the French call Champignons de Paris. These are the mushrooms they put into cans when they are very young (they call them ‘buttons’); the ones you get when you order mushrooms on toast, the kind Indian cooks call dhingri and the ones that European cooks routinely add to their dishes. But while the cultivated white mushroom may well be the West’s idea of a mushroom, it is probably not the world’s most popular mushroom. That honour goes to the shitake or what we in India call the black mushroom. That’s the one that Chinese restaurants buy by the kilo and put into everything. The shitake is so integral a part of Oriental cookery that it turns up in nearly every Far Eastern cuisine – though strangely, it is almost completely absent from Indian food. One reason we don’t immediately think of the shitake as a mushroom is because we rarely use it at home. And even when we do eat it at Chinese restaurants, it is rarely something we specifically order by name. Rather, it comes as part of some dish and its presence is rarely acknowledged on the menu. The other reason, of course, is that most of us have never seen a fresh shitake mushroom. Nor for that matter – oddly enough – have most chefs at Chinese restaurants in India.

Most supermarkets sell a few varieties of fresh mushrooms, including portobello, oyster and shiitake, as well as bags of dried mushrooms. But beginner cooks may not be sure how to clean specialty mushrooms, or what to do with them.

The basic idea is to rinse them (never soak them) and use a cloth or paper towel to remove any clingy dirt.

White mushrooms (button mushrooms)

These immature, unopened mushrooms are probably the most common in North American supermarkets. They can be bought either fresh or canned. Some grocery stores sell them pre-sliced but, once sliced, these mushrooms spoil quickly; they oxidize after being cut, turning brown and soft once exposed to air. They can be eaten raw or cooked in almost any dish, but their flavor intensifies with cooking. Bigger button mushrooms can be left whole and stuffed, for an appetizer or side dish.

Baby Bella mushrooms (cremini or brown mushrooms)

These are a darker, more flavorful version of the white button mushroom. They can be used in all the same ways as the white button mushroom.

Portobello (or portabella)

These are the grownup versions of the baby bella mushrooms, and can have caps that are six inches in diameter. They may be sliced and sautéed, but are often left whole and roasted. They have a rich taste and meaty texture that’s often likened to steak; some vegetarian recipes use them as a meat substitute. Their tough stems should be removed before cooking. Although the dark brown gills under the mushroom cap are edible, some prefer to remove them. To do this, simply scrape them off with the tip of a knife.

Oyster mushrooms

These fan-shaped mushrooms grow on the sides of trees, looking kind of like an (you guessed it) oyster. They have a mild taste, and work well in stir-fries, soups, sauces and many other dishes. Cut off the base of the mushroom, then separate its layers before cleaning them.

Shiitake mushrooms

If you like Asian food, you’ve probably tasted these in miso soup, sushi or in Chinese stir-fries. They have white stems, brown caps and typically sprout off logs. Shiitakes add a deep, smoky flavour and chewy texture to all kinds of dishes. They are available fresh or dried, which is said to have a more intense flavour. In Asia, shiitake mushrooms are associated with longevity and good health.

Enoki mushrooms

These long, crisp mushrooms are usually used in soups, but can also go in salads and sandwiches. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are available fresh and canned. They grow naturally on the hackberry tree (enoki in Japanese). Cut off the roots before using.

Maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods, sheepshead or ram’s head mushrooms)

Clustering around the base of trees, these feathery fungi are known as the King of Mushrooms in Japan because they can grow very large. Used in China and Japan for medicinal purposes, they have a strong, woodsy flavour and meaty texture. They work well in stir-fries.

Porcini mushrooms (These are the dried version.)

Prized in Italian cooking, these large-capped mushrooms typically grow in Europe and North America. They can be bought fresh and, because of their meaty texture, can be grilled and sautéed much like portobellos. They are often available dried in bags, and after being soaked in water, can be added to soups, sauces, stews and risottos.

Dried Wild Mushrooms

It’s nice to have a bag of mixed dried mushrooms (like the ones above) on hand to add "oomf" to all kinds of dishes. Just remember to leave time to reconstitute them. There are various ways to do this, depending on how much time you have. The dried mushrooms can sit in a bowl of cool water overnight, or in warm water for 20 minutes before cooking. They can also be boiled for 10 minutes before cooking. The water that they steep in will have lots of flavor and, if strained through a coffee filter to remove grit, can be used in place of other liquids in recipes.

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