Monday, September 12, 2011

Winged termites herald the coming of wild mushrooms

BACK in the 1970s when Hulu Kelang was less developed, rubber trees lined both sides of the road between the Wardieburn Camp and the area now known as Taman Melawati. One often came across village folk selling cendawan busut at makeshift stalls by the road.

Cendawan busut, loosely translated, means termite-mound mushroom in Malay.

They are not the regular mushrooms you could buy off the supermarket shelves.

They cannot be farmed, and can only be found in the wild.

My Malay friends once told me that the cendawan busut came from the heavens - the mushrooms only grew on ground that have just been struck by lightning.

There is a Hokkien belief that they come from unhatched termite eggs and can only be found in termite-infested ground such as rubber estates and bamboo groves. The Hokkiens call it tang koh (or bronze mushroom).

The mushrooms often appear preceding the presence of winged termite swarms known as kalkatu in Malay. These insects predictably emerge after a shower following a dry spell.

My first introduction to the tang koh was in the 1970s when my family settled in Gombak.

It was a hot evening after the rain when a swarm of winged termites was spotted in the village. An elderly neighbour told me that it was time to go looking for mushrooms.

True enough, the following morning, a group of womenfolk had beaten us to the wild mushrooms which had sprouted from the soft ground at a bamboo grove.

The mushroom patch was about half the size of a badminton court and the largest mushroom collected that day was no less than a foot (30cm) long, from cap to root.

In those days, the villagers still used the dacing (a hand-held scale) for weighing and the units of measurement were kati and tahil. The womenfolk harvested several katis (a kati is equivalent to 600g) of tang koh.

The lifespan of the mushroom is about a day. Once the caps are fully opened and the gills exposed, the mushrooms start to rot. This is one way to know if the mushrooms are fresh. Those who know their cendawan busut would never harvest those with their caps fully opened because it is believed that eating them would cause a stomach upset.

In the olden days, the Chinese prized the mushrooms for their nutritional value - as they did the termite queen and larvae.

However, it is the texture of the fungi which has been described as resembling chicken meat that kept it a sought-after gastronomic item throughout the generations.

Unfortunately, these mushrooms are a rare sight in the city. I have not heard of it being farmed like the oyster and the shiitake mushrooms and sold in supermarkets.

Friends who love the wild mushrooms say the mushrooms can still be bought just outside the city. A colleague will visit Ijok every time he has a craving for cendawan busut. My friend, Tham, says they are plentiful in Maran, Pahang.

I have seen village boys selling the mushrooms along the old road to Kajang and Semenyih.

But I have not come across any at the pasar tani in the city.

With so much development and pollution, they are now as rare as termite mounds in the city.

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