Termites make right with mushrooms

Thailand has a wide variety of the tasty fungal treats, but most prized are those cultivated by insects that pop up before and after the rainy season

Many of the mushrooms found in Thailand are particular to one region. There are a wide variety of mushroom types, and they vary according to the local terrain and weather. Some mushroom thrive in soil nourished by rotted leaves, other grow in heaps of rice straw, decaying wood, or crevices in rocks. Local people know where to find each type, and which to select for a given dish. But sometimes they make dangerous mistakes. There are poisonous mushrooms that strongly resemble the familiar, edible ones, and incorrect choices have resulted in death.

raw termite mushrooms.

In food preparation, each mushroom has its own special qualities. Some are tough and hard to chew but have a delicious fragrance, like the het lom that grows in the North at the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the cool season. Northerners cook them together with other vegetables to make the dish called kaeng khae. Villagers believe that although they can be tough, the mushrooms that grow in the middle of the cool season, when there is no rainfall, have a fragrance that makes the kaeng khae especially appetising.

Then there is the mushroom called het nang fa, which is soft and thin when raw but instantly becomes firm when it is boiled. It is excellent in tom yam dishes, where it is the last thing added to the pot just before it is lifted from the fire.

Today some of the mushrooms that used to be harvested from the places where they grew naturally have been adapted for commercial cultivation. A number of them have become cash crops for farmers. Among them are straw mushrooms, which used only to grow naturally in rice straw (the part of the rice plant that remained after the rice had been harvested, kept in stacks as feed for water buffalos). More recently, methods to farm them have been developed.

There are also foreign mushrooms that have been imported into Thailand and become so popular here that they are now cultivated domestically.

the cooked mushrooms.

But all of these different kinds of mushrooms have to take the back seat to the het khone, or termite mushroom, which Thais esteem as the king of them all. It does not grow naturally, but is cultivated through the hard work of termites, which are small insects with an enormous amount of energy.

Termites make their nests underground or in old heaps of soil, as they like the moist environment. Their tiny bodies have no digestive system, and their work consists of chewing pieces of different kinds of wood and carrying them back to the nest. Since it is cool and moist there, as the store of chewed wood grows, microorganisms appear that produce sugar, which becomes to termites' food. The bigger the store of wood, the more sugar is produced, and as the nest grows to great size, the termite population does, too.

When the seasonal change outside progresses from rainy to cool weather or from hot to rainy weather, it is time for the termites to mate. They grow wings and leave the nest while they are at full strength. In this winged form they are called maeng mao in Thai. They love to swarm around lights, where predators like house lizards and geckoes await them. Flying around in great numbers, many collide so that their wings fall off and they drop to the ground to die. Any that return to the nest find hungry frogs and toads eager to eat them. As a result, of the many thousands of termites that leave the nest, only a small percentage return.

This means that there will be a lot of extra food or sugar, and there are certain to be some mushroom spores mixed in with it. These sprout, and as the mushrooms grow they draw the sugar into themselves.

Outside, the changing weather affects the consistency of the soil. As the rainy season yields to the cool season, there will be extremely heavy rainfalls that soften the soil.

After the hot season, as the rainy season comes on, there will also be hard rain that has the same effect. The mushrooms that have been growing underground are able to push through it into the open, and there will be people there waiting for these delicacies _ the prized het khone.

There are two groups of het khone, the ones that grow in the central region and those found in Isan. They appear at different times. The central region mushrooms are native to Phetchaburi, Kanchanaburi provinces and the mountainous part of Suphan Buri. They are gathered in late October and early November as the rainy season stops and the cooler weather takes over. These are golden days for the local people, because before the rains cease completely there will be an interval when there is little rain and the weather becomes extremely hot and oppressive. Villagers refer to this weather as rawn het _ "mushroom heat".

Then there will come a day when the rain does fall, and continues through the night. At about 5am the villagers go out into the forest equipped with spades, knives and flashlights. When the light from the flashlights hits an emerging mushroom it will shine bright white. To the mushroom hunter, it looks like a gold nugget sticking out of the ground.

At the same time people in cities and towns, aware of what a rainy night after a hot, dry spell means, will head for the roads that run along the bases of mountains, where there are sure to be local people carrying plastic bags whose insides are smeared with soil. Inside are the muddy mushrooms, so special that paying 500 baht a kilo for them is no problem, especially since the opportunity to do so only comes once a year.

In Isan, the local people call the mushrooms het pluak. There they appear at the beginning of the rainy season, from late May through early June.

Villagers gather them to collect them for eating rather than to sell, but when the price goes up or demand is strong, especially among people from Bangkok, they send some of them to sell in the capital and keep the rest for themselves. This approach makes sense, since they can make some money and there are other kinds of mushrooms available all year round for them to eat.

In Bangkok, buyers can find termite mushrooms in markets that specialise in regional Isan produce.

The best way to eat het khone is in a tom yam made with only a little broth. There is no need to add any kind of meat or spice it up with too many chillies. When prepared this way, the sweet, delicate flavour of the mushrooms comes through fully.

So in the coming days, don't miss the opportunity to buy some and cook a delicious tom yam het khone. It will be a whole year until you have another chance.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer