Welcome to The Storied Recipe!
My podcast guest Kaveri Ponnapa wrote The Vanishing Kodavas to preserve the oral histories, customs, and culture of her people. This quick & easy Mushroom Curry recipe was made by the women in her family from mushrooms foraged after monsoon season. I invite you to listen to her nostalgic memories while making her creamy Mushroom Curry with Coconut Milk.
While this is the easiest mushroom curry you can whip up, it was anything but for the women in Kaveri’s home, who first foraged mushrooms, then “set to work with a will” painstakingly cleaning them.
While we enjoy the conveniences of cleaned, packaged mushrooms, canned coconut milk, and prepared spice powders, we can still benefit from the health benefits of this naturally vegan curry and enjoy the perfectly balanced flavors in this dish.
And, we can imagine the feeling Kaveri experienced when, after the monsoons, she ventured outside with her father to find hill upon rolling green hill covered with mushrooms as white as snow.
Table of Contents (Jump To Section)
What To Expect (Flavor, Texture, and Look)
On the simplicity of this dish:
- Kaveri says, “This dish is not garnished, it depends entirely on the flavour and fragrance of wild mushrooms for its appeal. Kodagu has excellent native limes, which are sliced and squeezed over this curry. Usually there’s a flash of vivid green from limes sliced and placed beside the dish.”
- The flavor is perfectly balanced – smooth coconut, spicy green chili, slightly sweet ground coriander, sour lime, earthy mushrooms.
- The mushroom masala gravy is smooth and creamy from the fat in the coconut milk.
- Choose firm mushrooms (more on that below) for the meatiest bites.
- The mushrooms will hold their shape, peeking through their creamy gravy.
- The gorgeous golden color of this dish comes from turmeric, chili powder, and coriander. This is a mushroom curry without tomato sauce.
Best Choice of Mushrooms
- Most of us can't access the types of mushrooms Kaveri and her family used in their dish. This shouldn't hinder us from making a mushroom masala curry to our own tastes and budget.
- Kaveri recommends White Button Mushrooms as the best substitute to those her aunt and mother used. This type of mushroom are the cheapest and most easily available option. I found they cooked beautifully – tender but still meaty.
- You can also use meatier mushrooms like Cremini mushrooms (= Baby Portabellas). Creminis are just white mushrooms, but a little more mature (yet still less mature than Portobellos). I think they look a little prettier and hold up longer.
- If you use Shiitake Mushrooms, you’ll need to cook their wooden stems a bit in advance. (Or set them aside for another use.) Also, make sure you cook them thoroughly, as they can cause a skin rash if eaten raw.
- After hearing Kaveri describe the hills covered with snowy mushrooms, I had to buy Enoki Mushrooms simply for the visual reference. However, these cooked down to almost nothing in the dish, so if you get them, plan on only using them for a garnish. You could fry these for a crispy topping.
- If visuals are very important to you, you could also use Straw Mushrooms or Oyster Mushrooms whole to retain their shape without chopping. However, I’d add those a little later if you’re using thicker, meatier mushrooms as well.
- Portobello mushrooms, although prized for their meaty texture, are not optimal for this dish. They're larger and will have to be cut multiple times into bite sized pieces. Their dark gills will also darken and dim the gorgeous golden of the turmeric powder and chili powder. Finally, their stems are woody, so those will need to be chopped finer and cooked longer or set aside for another use.
More Ingredient Questions
Full Fat vs. Low Fat Coconut Milk
- As you’ll see in the recipe, Kaveri’s family extracted the coconut milk themselves from the coconut. So the authentic recipe would use full fat milk.
- This is a very low calorie main dish. The mushrooms and spices contribute a great deal of nutrient and flavor, but very few calories. Full fat coconut milk will make this a more hearty and filling main dish.
- If neither are on hand, you can substitute with a nut milk. Again, fattier is better for this particular dish.
Which Red Chili Powder?
- I used this Kashmiri Chili Power which Dyutima Jha introduced me to. It’s prized in India for it’s color and flavor.
- It’s very important to balance this dish with a sour flavor. Here’s what Kaveri says:
- The single ingredient unique to Kodagu is kachampuli, a dark, sour vinegar boiled down from the juices of a fruit that grows locally, and is used extensively in Kodava cooking imparting a flavour that is quite unique.It is not available in grocery store in America, to the best of my knowledge. In this dish, a little extra juice from limes would be good substitute.
How to Clean Mushrooms
- If you forage your own mushrooms, you’ll need to clean them more thoroughly than those bought at a grocery store. Here’s a handy guide from Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms.
- For the rest of us, we don’t need to overcomplicate this step!
- Several bloggers, including the illustrious America’s Test Kitchen, recommends cleaning your mushrooms with a dry brush to prevent damaging or discoloring them. This seems needlessly fussy to me, especially since the mushooms will be tossed in salt and turmeric before cooking, then coated with a chili coconut sauce.
- Soaking the mushrooms in a bowl, then rinsing the water is a hands-off, easy way to clean mushrooms - if you have 5 to 10 minutes to spare.
- In a hurry, there's nothing wrong with a spraying your mushrooms in a colander!
- Dry on a paper towel after cleaning so the moisture won't splatter in the oil.
What to Serve with Mushroom Curry
- Kaveri says, “This curry is usually eaten with Akki Ottis (unleavened rice flatbreads).”
- Puja shares a recipe for a Rice Flour Flatbread in her blog Indiaphile, although they go by a different name.
- Try with my podcast guest Shakila’s flaky, soft, crispy Roti Prata/Roti Canai.
- Plain paratha will work well also - here's a recipe from Dassana
- Naan bread is easiest to find in stores for a super quick dinner.
- Try this Jeera Rice (Cumin Rice) from Swasthi
- This is my favorite Basmati Rice
- You could up your veggie game even more with a Cauliflower Rice
Kaveri Ponnapa is an anthropologist and author of The Vanishing Kodavas - deep cultural study of her people group who were devoted above all else to the rolling hills and deep, dense forests of their land, Kodagu.
Kaveri's Memories of Mushroom Curry
A curry traditionally made with wild, foraged mushrooms which are an important part of Kodava cuisine, this dish holds layers of memories of my aunt who shared this recipe, and my maternal grandmother, who cleaned and cooked wild mushrooms in vast quantities for a houseful of daughters, husbands and their many children.The mushrooms came in by the basket-load in season, spreading their fragrance through my grandmother's wood-fired kitchen. They were covered in clinging mud, and hard to clean. Yet the women of the house and their helpers set to work with a will, so that we could enjoy these fleeting, seasonal treats. This recipe also speaks of the drastic environmental changes that have taken place in Kodagu over the last couple of decades. With more aggressive farming practices—the increased use of fertiliser and pesticides, the aggressive clearing of weeds and wild plants—the quantities of wild mushrooms coming into our kitchens have reduced drastically. Wild mushrooms are emblematic of the late monsoon season in Kodagu, a season that has many cultural connotations. The wild foods we loved and took for granted are becoming elusive. With the loss of certain foods, an emotion that emerged from a particular season also fades and eventually disappears.