Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Mushroom Conundrum

This is part 6 of a 7 part series on Ayurveda. 
To go the Introduction, click here

Mushrooms are a mysterious food.  They’re neither plant nor animal, although they have characteristics of both. In ancient times, they were revered as magical because people couldn’t figure out how they reproduced. Mushrooms grow rapidly, often appearing overnight. Without roots or seeds, mushrooms seemed to spring from the divine.

One of the foods excluded in the Sattvic, or Yogic, diet is the mushroom. Indian cuisine in general avoids mushrooms, except in the northern regions of Kashmir. Why mushrooms are excluded from the traditional diet is somewhat unclear. This mycophobia puts India at a difference with the rest of Asia, where mushrooms are a culinary staple and are also used to cure everything from the common cold to cancer.

Recent research has shown that mushrooms do have remarkable curative properties. The shitake mushroom has gained media attention as a potential cure for serious viral infections, such as Hepatitis B and HIV. Other mushrooms have been shown to make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy treatments, prevent tumor growth, inhibit plaque build-up on artery walls, and have positive effects on diabetes and immune disorders.

caterpillar cordyceps
Some mushrooms are downright magical, without being hallucinogenic. The cordycep mushroom is a parasitical mushroom that affects the behavior of its host. For unknown reasons, an ant or caterpillar infected with the cordycep spore will climb to the highest point of a plant, whether it’s a tree or a blade of grass. The mushroom will then sprout from the insect’s body. It has many uses. In 1993, a Chinese female long-distance running team set 5 new world records. Their coach, Ma Junren, attributes their exceptional performance to cordycep mushrooms. Traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, the cordycep has also been proscribed powers against cancer and HIV. This bit of fame has inflated the market price of the caterpillar cordycep, which now sells for as much as $6,500 USD a kilo (2 pounds)!

Some Ayurvedic sources actually classify the cordycep as a rasayana herb, and prescribe it for ailments ranging from weakened sexual function to asthma.

While contemporary demand for mushrooms is highest in China and other Asian countries, India has its own history with mushrooms. Some researchers theorize that the ancient sacred texts, the Vedas, were inspired by hallucinogenic mushrooms. Much of the Rg Veda is dedicated to the Soma ritual, in which an unspecified plant believed to have hallucinogenic qualities is mixed with heated ghee and consumed. 

While the identity of soma plant has been lost to history, there is still a mushroom that bears its name.
Amanita muscaria, also called fly agaric or soma, is a species of mushroom that contains Ibotenic acid and muscimol. Consuming soma mushrooms causes ethanol-like intoxication and muscle spasms that occur within 90 minutes of consumption and last 4-8 hours. These mushrooms typically grow in temperate climates and mountainous areas, and are found throughout the world.

Amanita muscaria
Gordon Wasson was the first person to connect the soma mushroom with the soma of the Rg Veda. In his 1968 book, “Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality”, Wasson theorizes that the soma ritual began around 4,000 years ago with the Aryans, an ancient people from Central Asia who eventually populated India and Iran, and who brought with them the Vedic religion. Coincidentally, the Iranian Zoroastrian text, the Aveda, also contains ceremonies based around a plant believed to be hallucinogenic, referred to as Haoma. Wasson believed that the soma mushroom was the cause of the “ecstasy” described in both the Indian and Iranian texts. 

Some of the clues Wasson sites as evidence that the ancient soma was a mushroom, and not a plant, is that the Rg Veda describes soma as “a small, leafless plant with a fleshy stalk”. George Wong, a botany professor at the University of Hawaii, elaborates further:
“No reference was ever made about roots, flowers and seeds. Nor was there a description of propagating this plant If soma was indeed a plant, why would the Aryans not have brought it with them, when they migrated and began cultivation once they had settled? The Aryans were, after all, known for their prowess as farmers and would have been able to grow soma had it been a plant. The Rg Veda also specifically states that soma can only be found growing in the mountains, which is where A. muscaria can only be found in the latitude of the Indus Valley.” 

For more mushroom theories, including that Jesus was a mushroom, click here

Unfortunately for the Aryans, the mountain region of India was dominated by an enemy tribe, the Dasyus, making the magical mushrooms unobtainable. This would lead them to experiment with other, less potent, plants in the soma ritual.

some mushrooms glow in the dark
Over time, hallucinogenic plants became a controversial topic and were banned from the diet of those seeking enlightenment. The forest rishis were required to abstain from “honey-based liquors, animal flesh, fungus, mushrooms, horseradish or any hallucinogenic or intoxicating herbs, even those taken as so-called medicine”

So why don’t Indians eat mushrooms?
It’s unclear why Indians don’t eat much mushroom. They are not traditionally included in the diet, although they are gaining popularity. In the west, mushrooms are popular among vegetarians because their texture allows them to be substituted into recipes calling for meat. It has been posited that for people raised vegetarian, that same resemblance to meat is repugnant. Currently, only three mushrooms are commercially cultivated in India, having been introduced in the southern provinces of Karnataka and Kerala: the white mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), the paddy-straw mushroom (Volvariella vovvacea) and the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus sajor-caju). As Indians become more familiar with the fungi, chefs are re-inventing traditional Indian dishes to include them, adding mushrooms to curries, dosas, and dals.

Why do the Yogic texts recommend avoiding mushrooms?
In Ayurveda, mushrooms are categorized as having Tamasic qualities, which create a dulling or numbing of the senses in those who consume them. This theory probably arises from the fact that mushrooms grow in dark, dank areas that were considered unclean, on decaying flesh or other organisms. A Hare Krisnha webiste explains: “Because mushrooms grow in a filthy place, they are not usually offered to Krishna.” It may also be that mushrooms undetermined rank, somewhere between plant and animal, made the vegetarian-conscious sadhus uncomfortable with eating them.

Probably, the ancient yogis were just being practical. Mushrooms are high in indigestible fiber, low in calories, and cause some people to have gas. Most of the texts recommend low-volume foods that take up little space and energy in the gut, while providing enough calories for a strong practice. A diet high in mushrooms does not meet either of these requirements.

Whether or not you include mushrooms in your diet is up to you. There’s certainly no evidence that they have any negative effects on health, as long as you stick to the edible varieties. I personally don’t find mushrooms very enjoyable in the raw state, and don’t seek them out. 

Do you eat mushrooms? Please leave a comment below explaining why or why not!

Coming up next, the conclusion to the series: What does all this mean for raw foodists?



  1. You definitely hit the nail on the head when you said "Mushrooms are mysterious" , such are the ways of growing this edible wonder makes you want to grow them more, did have a chance on coming upon a site I visited, do have a look -

  2. Mushrooms are not excluded from the diet of Indians intentionally. There are types of mushroom that grow in India naturally that have been consumed for a long time, but these are not foods which are common so they are not eaten every day. Think about it - many fungus are seasonal and require foraging to find them. Traditionally, they would not have been a practical frequent food. However thanks to modern farming, the button mushroom is a very popular vegetable nowadays especially when people make "Chinese" (not really very authentic!) or "foreign" dishes. And they are cooked in Indian ways too. So you are mistaken in thinking that Indians themselves do not like or eat mushrooms. What Ayurveda/Yoga says and what is actually done by Indians are two (or three!) separate things.


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