Hunting for mushrooms in the Mekong Delta

(No.5, Vol.4,Jun-Jul 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Termite mushrooms. Photo: Huong Giang

After a heavy rain lasting several days, when sunlight breaks out in the sky, termite mushrooms begin to sprout. Termite mushrooms are most robust in the beginning of the sixth month on lunar calendar (early July this year). They are a kind of natural mushroom that cannot be planted by humans and often appears near termite mounds in gardens. This species of termite makes termitaria on dry elevated land with many decaying trees. When the rain persists over several days, this species of termite secretes an enzyme around their nest. Once the sun comes out, the mushrooms shoot up from this area in patches that are sometimes several meters long.
People who hunt for termite mushrooms have to wake up when the sky is still dark, carrying lamps for foraging. Termite mushrooms often re-germinate or shoot up around areas where they were the previous year, so they are easy to find. On the day the mushrooms first shoot up, they are as small as a pepper corn, with pointy heads just beginning to emerge from the earth’s surface. Mushrooms this size cannot be pulled out, so whoever finds them ‘lays claim’ to them by taking coconut leaves to cover them or planting a stake there to mark it, so as to let people know that the spot already has a claimant. In less than two days, the mushrooms protrude from the earth’s surface to a height of 3-4cm, but they do not yet open. It is not until the end of the second day that the mushrooms start to burst open, which is the best time to harvest them and make the best-tasting foods. Peculiarly, knives or any other metal object cannot be used to pull out the mushrooms, because people say that if the mushrooms catch wind of a sharp knife, then the following season they will remain submerged and no longer sprout. Thus, on hard soil, bamboo and wooden sticks are used to dig out the mushrooms.

A termite mushroom in U Minh Ha National Park, Mekong Delta.
Photo: Huynh Lam

The mushrooms, having been picked and brought home, just need to be soaked in salted water and cleaned of the dirt that sticks to them. They need to be cleaned delicately to avoid breaking or smooshing, which would ruin their sweetness. The most delicious kind of mushrooms is those that have just burst open in the morning. They are very fresh and their stalks are firm. This is the most ideal sort of mushroom for preparing food dishes.
The mushrooms cannot be cultivated, so often times they are difficult to buy even when money avails. Termite mushrooms are regarded as valuable, rare specialties of the countryside. With their delicate natural sweetness and characteristic aroma, termite mushrooms can be made into many delicious, nourishing dishes like mushrooms stir-fried in fat, simmered in premna leaves (lá cách), stuffed into bánh xèo (rice-pancakes), or made into a soup with assorted vegetables. Every year during the Doan Ngo Festival (on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month) in the countryside, families usually gather together with relatives and their children to make bánh xèo to eat and enjoy. Notably, this is the point in time when termite mushrooms are in season. The bánh xèo are stuffed with greasyback shrimp, mung bean, and extremely tasty, sweet-smelling mushrooms. They are eaten with household garden vegetables. Anyone who savours them once will remember them forever.
The people insistently treat termite mushrooms as a top-grade delicacy that needs only to be stir-fried in fat to retain its original sweetness and aroma without the need for additional meat or fish. For perfectly ripe mushrooms seasoned with scallions, remember to drop them in immediately, sprinkle in some pepper, and, in that way, relish this dish bestowed by nature. Besides that, termite mushrooms are further made into fish, meat, and chicken porridge. The tastiest, however, is toad porridge cooked with termite mushrooms.
In the drizzling rain during evenings in the countryside, toads leap out in search of food. Once caught, the toad is butchered and thoroughly cleaned. All of the internal organs are removed, retaining only the meat, which is finely ground. The toad meat is then taken to prepare a well-cooked porridge, after which the termite mushrooms are put in. According to common folk, toad and termite mushroom porridge with scallions and pepper is beneficial to one’s health. Children who eat it will avoid getting rickets, and it cools excess heat. As for adults, it is a nutritional supplement. Besides, the broth cooked by amassing various kinds of sweet leaf (sauropus androgynous), pennywort (centella asiatica), amaranth, and premna leaves from the garden, along with termite mushrooms, is impeccable.

By Thanh Tong
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