Mushroom for debate
A tweet posted earlier this week has raised the question of whether mushrooms can be part of a vegetarian's diet or not. Experts get to the root of the debate
It's a tweet that opened up a can of worms, but the debate has existed for centuries in Indian society. On Wednesday, Rocky Singh of Highway on My Plate fame put up a post on the Twitter handle he shares with Mayur Sharma, his vegetarian co-host on the TV show, which said that mushrooms are not plants. They are fungi and hence closer in relation to the animal kingdom. So if you eat mushrooms and call yourself a vegetarian, you might want to reconsider that label.
Singh had a two-fold intention in making this statement. One was to rile Sharma up in a light-hearted manner. But the other is more significant. He explains, "Mushrooms lack chlorophyll, [the photosynthetic pigment] which broadly defines plants. And these days, when people are becoming quite vociferous about their vegetarianism while attacking meat eaters, I wanted to point out that if you are that rigid, then you should follow your own protocol since otherwise, it's hypocritical."
Mayur Sharma (left) and Rocky Singh
Singh adds that something like Parmesan or Gorgonzola cheese is made with rennet, which come from a kid's — meaning baby goat's — intestines. Even the gold or silver leaf that is used to adorn mithais during Indian festivals gets its flat shape after being folded in bovine intestines and pounded with a hammer for hours. So his point — and he clarifies that he means this with the utmost love and respect — is that if you consume these substances, then you are not really following the true path of vegetarianism.
But coming back to the issue at hand — mushrooms — is it fair to say that as fungi, they are closer to the animal kingdom than plants and therefore unsuitable for a strictly vegetarian diet? Food historian Pushpesh Pant feels that the answer is yes. He tells us, "They are fungi who sometimes live off animal tissues. They imbibe something of the living organism they are growing on." As such, they shouldn't be on the plate of an orthodox vegetarian. "But how many vegetarians would say that about yeast [which are single-celled organisms with a nucleus] while having bread? How many of them read the labels of medicines to check if it has animal gelatins?" Pant asks.
Rohhaan Gawde on his mushroom farm
These are pertinent questions, but Rohhaan Gawde goes one step ahead. Gawde started The Mushroom Co, which farms and distributes different fungi, and he feels that they are closer to human beings than plants or animals. He first explains that all three kingdoms — plant, animal and fungi — help each other out since animals help fungi to pollinate, fungi help plants grow, and animals later feed on the same plants. "But the reason I say that fungi are closer to human beings is because just like we need oxygen to survive, they, too, need a lot of fresh air. Plants, on the other hand, require carbon dioxide," Gawde tells us.
The key takeaway here is that it's now an undisputed scientific fact that plants, fungi and animals all occupy different kingdoms, which is where we should let this debate rest, feels food chronicler Kurush Dalal. Goa-based chef Alistair Lethorn, meanwhile, says he would call mushrooms 'advanced vegetables'. But it's also an undisputed fact that for centuries now, there have been certain sections of Indian vegetarians who have not considered mushrooms as a part of their diet. Sonali Bhardwaj, a Mumbai-based actor, is one such person. She hails from a Brahmin Pandit family in Bhopal and tells us that while growing up, the elders would give bhog to their gods before having their own meals. "Aur ab Ramji toh mushrooms nahi khaayenge," she reasons. The meaty, fleshy texture of fungi didn't sit well with her palate either. So it's only after coming to Mumbai that she developed a taste for it. "I don't think there are many middle-class families in smaller towns who will entertain mushrooms," Bhardwaj feels, indicating how its consumption can also be a signifier of socio-economic status.
So, the debate remains open-ended. But in a way, we are missing the woods for the trees in making all these arguments. Singh's main intention in posting his tweet was to hold up a mirror to a society that is becoming increasingly divisive on the lines of vegetarians vs non-vegetarians. Sharma — the intended recipient of Singh's light-hearted dig — tells us that he in fact has a problem with these binary terminologies. "India is the only place in the world to use the word 'non-vegetarian'. It has started creating unnecessary discord when food has historically been our country's greatest unifier. So, instead of calling someone 'non-veg', I would rather call them 'consumers of animal protein,'" he tells us.
What he's saying is, live and let live. Eat and let eat. That, really, is all.
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