I never thought that wild mushrooms in Malaysia and Singapore could be edible. The image of picking mushrooms from the ground and placing them in a weaved basket to bring home for dinner doesn’t seem realistic here. It’s only possible in a children’s storybook happening in temperate Europe where everything is pristine, not in our tropical land of mosquitoes and leeches.
I realized this isn’t true ever since we started staying at Project Lui. We are in the rural villages amidst foggy mountains and waterfalls. Knowledge of the land is still somewhat strong here and people still forage for food in the wild. One of the wild mushrooms we learned about is the termite mushroom. Actually I came up with the name myself because I don’t think there’s a common name in English for it. In Malay, it’s “cendawan busut” (cendawan means mushroom). The scientific name is Termitomyces sp., which provides a clue about this mushroom. Termito like termites, and myces like fungus.
This mushroom grows on top of termite nests. The long stem reaches deep into the termite nest. The fungus helps to break down organic matter and turns it into food for the termites. There are known cases where termites farm mushrooms to break down organic matter in a symbiotic relationship. It might be the case for this mushroom as well.
I first heard about this mushroom from an old Chinese man while we were at Serukam Farm in Sungai Petani. He calls it “白蚁菇” in Chinese, which translates to termite mushroom. He says it can be found after a rainy spell followed suddenly by hot and dry weather. We have also seen it once at a small roadside stall. The lady selling it said that her relative harvested it from the forest that same day.
Imagine our surprise when we found it growing a hundred meters from our house in Project Lui one morning. It’s always scary harvesting wild mushrooms for food given their reputation for toxicity. We asked a few sources for confirmation before cooking them. Another useful clue is to see that other insects or animals have taken a bite of it (as you can see in the photo).