While the psychedelic-spell inducing magic mushrooms are the toast of Goa's coastal rave party circuit, away in the monsoon-soaked hinterland, wild mushrooms, locally called 'alami', continue to rule the roost.
The wild mushrooms, essentially an edible fungi, spring up like tiny white bobs of smooth candy all across anthills in forested areas, especially in wildlife sanctuaries like Mollem, 90 km state capital Panaji, from where they are harvested by the basketfull to local markets in folded large and coarse teak-tree leaves.
A small bunch may cost anywhere between Rs.500 ($7.5) and Rs.2,000 depending on the season and the demand. You are considered lucky if you come away with a packet of alami by managing to survive the stampede of aficionados around the vendors.
"I buy them at least once in the monsoon. As long as I can remember, my mother has been cooking alami tondache (a thick stew). It's to die for," Waman Shetye from Bicholim, who had just picked up a packet of alami from a woman vendor near the District and Sessions Court in Panaji, told IANS.
Shetye isn't the only one who prefers the crunchy taste of these mushrooms over the artificially cultured and packaged variety.
According to Goan chefs, it is the distinctly earthy, nutty flavour of alami which sets them apart from the relatively subdued taste of the mushrooms packed for supermarkets.
"Hindus in Goa consume them as a delicious vegetable preparation. The popular Goan dishes are alami tonak, alami xacuti and chilly fry. These are the recipes passed down from generations and are still being prepared in the same way," said Rodwin Rodrigues, assistant chef at the V.M. Salgaocar Institute of International Hospitality Education.
According to Nandkumar Kamat, who has researched extensively on mushrooms, there are around 100 different edible species in Goa that he has come across during his research spanning over three decades.
"Local species have interesting local names like olmi or alami, roenichim, toshali, chochyali, khut or khuti, shiti, shitol , shiringar olmi, shendari, kuski, dukor, surya olmi, tel alami, fuge and bhuifod," according to Kamat.
Harvesting the fungi bloom is often considered a rite of passage for youngsters growing up in remote parts of Goa.
"Thirty-five of these species are collected by the locals from the wild for consumption and only 12-14 species produce a marketable crop which is sold from July to September," Kamat further said.
Of all the varieties, alami is the most popular, although unfortunately, being seasonal isn't exactly a qualification to feature on the menu of a five-star hotel.
"Unfortunately this is not served in most five-star restaurants as they are seasonal and continuity and availability constitute an issue for regular menu usage," Shubhendu Kadam, Executive Chef at Alila Diwa Goa Resort, explained.
And, of course, there is the fear of allergies.
"A few non-Goan guests who have never been exposed to this variety of mushrooms are at times highly allergic to this wild variety. Commercially-grown button mushrooms are used in restaurants but we cannot compare their taste and nutritive value with the alami," Kadam conceded.
Adding to the allure of the wild mushrooms are legends like the one Kadam recounted.
"Tradition dictates that the guardian snake (of the ant-hill) has to be pleased before harvesting the mushroom. This is done using a wild herb called akshar. This unique tradition just can't be compared to the commercial version which is also way too mild in flavour and spongy in texture," he said.
(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at email@example.com)