High in antioxidants and packed with vitamins and minerals, mushrooms are rising up the superfood charts. Incorporating them into your diet – or as an alternative to your morning coffee – may not only boost your immune system but also give your skin a healthy glow, keep your heart healthy and a lot more. Although we think of them as vegetables, mushrooms are not technically plants – they belong to the fungi kingdom. And they bust the commonly held nutritional yardstick that a food that lacks colour also lacks necessary nutrients. “Usually it’s the brightly coloured vegetables that are packed with antioxidants – think of pomegranates – so brown mushrooms you wouldn’t expect to be so powerful in terms of nutrients, they are an exception,” says Lawrence Tredrea, a nutritionist and naturopath at the Integrated Medicine Institute in Central. “Mushrooms have a constituent called beta-glucans which help increase the production of white blood cells. If your immune system is lowered, mushrooms can help improve the count and function of white blood cells and have a protective effect against cancer,” says Tredrea. Mushrooms are high in vitamin D, which are good for your immune system and also help to protect DNA, he says. They naturally produce vitamin D when they see sunlight. Having a normal vitamin D level is good for healthy bones, the prevention of rickets and osteoporosis. They are also high in fibre, which is good for gut health. Selenium, a mineral that is not present in most fruits and vegetables, can be found in mushrooms. It plays a role in liver enzyme function and helps fight some cancer-causing compounds in the body. What’s more, selenium prevents inflammation and also decreases tumour growth rates. Mushrooms are also are rich in B vitamins – riboflavin (B2), folate (B9), thiamine (B1), pantothenic acid (B5), and niacin (B3). B vitamins help the body to get energy from food and form red blood cells. Eating mushrooms may even be good for brain health. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in March found that seniors who had more than two servings of mushrooms a week may cut their risk of having mild cognitive impairment in half. National University of Singapore researchers collected data from more than 600 Chinese seniors over the age of 60 over six years for the study. They believe ergothioneine, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound found mainly in mushrooms, which humans cannot synthesise on their own, is responsible. Tredrea moved to Hong Kong five weeks ago from Australia, where the hottest mushroom trend has taken hold – mushroom latte. “Powdered mushrooms can make a coffee-alternative latte. You can mix it in with hot chocolate or coffee, it’s got an earthy flavour, and it helps the immune system and bodily functions,” says Tredrea. The likes of Finnish brand Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee is made from regular coffee infused with medicinal mushroom extracts. Just mix the powder with hot water. This superfood is cultivated in Hong Kong. Freshly grown does not just translate into a more environmentally-friendly food source – no airfreight needed, so zero carbon emissions – but also greater health benefits as the mushroom’s nutritional goodness isn’t leached out during transportation. Wong Kong-sang owns and runs Auden Green Products organic mushroom farm in Yuen Long. His foray into mushrooms began in 2005 in Shandong, where he ran a textiles business. A wheat-growing region, the local farmers used wheat straw and chicken manure – both readily available – to grow mushrooms. “The government approached me and asked if I could help modernise the agriculture. Friends told me to see the modern way [of growing mushrooms] I should go to Holland,” says Wong. So he did. He was so impressed with the Dutch method, which relies on a computer-controlled system to monitor the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide in indoor farms, that he invested US$4 million in equipment for the project. In 2008, he moved to Hong Kong and founded Auden Green Products, the city’s first organic fungus farm. He buys the compost from Holland, a mixture of wheat and horse manure. We focus on educating and demonstrating how fungi work in nature Chi Ho, co-founder of The Mushroom Initiative “Horse manure gives the mushrooms a better taste. I claim my mushrooms are Dutch mushrooms made in Hong Kong,” says Wong, who grows Agaricus bisporus, the button mushroom or table mushroom, the world’s most popular species. He spreads the compost across five layers of shelves in his climate-controlled indoor farm. The growing cycle runs over six weeks – the first flush, which accounts for 50-60 per cent of the mushrooms, occurring at the four-week mark. Auden now stocks major grocery stores, including City’super, UNY, Market Place by Jasons, and ThreeSixty. All mushrooms are a rich source of umami, the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. And the darker the mushroom the more umami it contains. Dried mushrooms tend to have more umami than fresh ones, and cooked mushrooms more than raw. This means that adding mushrooms in any form will add an umami lift to foods. “You don’t need to put in much salt when cooking, which makes for healthy meals,” says Wong. While mushrooms are gaining ground among the health conscious, there is an environmental awareness and educational non-governmental organisation out to show that they are a valuable element in nature’s nutrient cycle. The Mushroom Initiative was established in 2008 and has opened an experimental base in Tai Po to cultivate organic and environmentally-friendly mushrooms. “We focus on educating and demonstrating how fungi work in nature,” says co-founder Chi Ho, who has a special interest in soil life. While green plants have chlorophyll that helps them make food from sunlight, fungi lack chlorophyll, and obtain nutrition by absorbing plant and animal matter. Chi says this makes fungi not only good at decomposing plants, but also at completing the environment’s nutrient cycle. The Mushroom Initiative’s Tai Po base cultivates organic mushrooms and vegetables. It is active in promoting climate mitigation, including the establishment of healthy soils and plants, and demonstrating the importance of interactions between various organisms and microorganisms in the soil. “We have experimented with our own recipe for growing eatable mushrooms using material collected from urban waste, such as wood chips, soybean dredge and coffee grounds. We want to demonstrate the possibility of using urban waste to grow mushrooms,” says Chi. More meals with mushrooms “I’ve been eating a lot of mushrooms since I moved to Hong Kong – they have great health benefits and are very versatile to cook with,” says nutritionist Lawrence Tredrea, a keen home cook who advises eating mushrooms every other day to see an improvement in white blood cells. Here are some ways to do this. 1. Include mushrooms in a vegetable curry, eat with brown rice. 2. Make a simple broth – simmer the mushrooms in water with herbs and spices. 3. Fry mushrooms with your eggs in the morning. 4. Grill a large Portobello or field mushroom and stuff it with a favourite topping. 5. Use a large mushroom as the “patty” in a burger bun. Or, for a gluten-free alternative, use two large mushrooms as the buns around your favourite patty. Two mushroom recipes by Susan Jung, the Post’s senior food and wine editor Mushroom and mascarpone gratin About 85 grams unsalted butter 850 grams mixed fresh mushrooms 50 grams shallots, sliced 3 large garlic cloves, sliced 100 grams mascarpone 50 grams panko 20 grams parsley leaves, chopped 15 grams freshly grated parmesan Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Slice, quarter or halve the mushrooms as needed so they're all about the same size. 2. Heat 20 grams of butter in a wok or large skillet. When the butter melts, add one-third each of the shallots, garlic and mushrooms. Season with salt then cook over a high flame, stirring often. The mushrooms will give off liquid, then reabsorb it. As soon as they've absorbed the liquid, put the mushrooms in a large bowl. Cook the remaining shallots, garlic and mushrooms the same way in two more batches, adding them to the bowl when ready. After cooking all of the mushrooms, stir in some pepper, then gently mix in the mascarpone. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed. 3. Melt 25 grams of butter, then stir it into the panko. Mix in the parsley and parmesan. Spread the mushroom mixture in a thin, even layer in a shallow dish that's about 24cm in diameter. 4. Spread the panko mixture over the mushrooms. Bake at 200 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until the surface is crusty and medium brown. Serve immediately. Three-cup mushrooms 800 grams fresh mushrooms, at least three types A 1cm chunk of fresh ginger 5 garlic cloves 5 shallots 1-2 dried chillies 30ml light soy sauce 30ml kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) 60ml rice wine 30ml sesame oil 20 grams Chinese rock sugar (or granulated sugar) ¼ tsp fine sea salt 1-2 red banana chillies A small handful of Thai basil leaves Steamed white rice, for serving 1. Briefly rinse the mushrooms. If using large, meaty mushrooms (such as king oyster), cut them into three-bite pieces (they shrink when cooked). Softer mushrooms (such as straw) should be cut in half. If using enoki mushrooms, trim off and discard about 1.5cm of the woody stem ends, then pull the mushrooms into smaller clumps. Keep the mushrooms separate by type. 2. Peel the chunk of ginger, then put it on a cutting board and hit it with the side of a cleaver to crush it lightly. Peel the garlic cloves and shallots, but leave them whole. Rinse the dried chillies. Cut the banana chillies on the diagonal into 3mm-thick pieces. 3. Put the light soy sauce, kecap manis, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar and salt in a clay pot that holds about two litres. Place the pot over a medium flame and bring to the boil, then add the ginger, garlic, shallots and dried chillies. Boil the ingredients for about five minutes, or until the sugar dissolves. 4. Add the mushrooms to the boiling liquid; the meatier types (such as king oyster) should go in first. When the firmer mushrooms start to soften, mix in the softer varieties (but not the enoki, which should be added at the end). Boil the ingredients uncovered and stir often – the mushrooms will soften and give off their own liquid, before absorbing the sauce. Cook the mushrooms for about 10 minutes in total, or until the sauce thickens slightly. Stir in the enoki mushrooms and banana chillies. Taste the sauce and correct, if needed, then simmer for several more minutes, stirring often, until the enoki mushrooms are cooked. 5. Stir in the basil leaves and simmer until wilted, then remove from the flame. Serve the three-cup mushrooms with plenty of white rice.