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Mushrooms and Foraging in Bhutan

Bhutan is famous for many things…. Including its rich culture, magnificent flora and fauna, jaw-dropping architecture and impeccable hospitality. Here’s one more thing the ‘Land of Happiness’ takes pride in: Mushrooms. Did you know that there are over 400 varieties of mushrooms in Bhutan? Let’s dig in deeper into these fungal beauties.

The Bhutanese love their mushrooms and even camp out for days on end in a forest during the harvest time of a favoured variety. Mushrooms also play an important role in local diets and traditional medicines. Guests can find them in markets and on roadsides. Villagers sell chanterelles, shiitake and coral mushrooms from overflowing bags. In rural areas during winter, when there’s little that can be picked fresh, mushrooms that were dried during the summer become a staple vegetable.

Broadly, mushrooms in Bhutan are categorised into - edible, edibility unknown, poisonous and inedible.

The most popular is the Tricholoma Matsutake. Also known as Sangay Shamu it is highly prized. There’s an interesting story of how it gained popularity. It was Aum Kuchum who first found the Matsutake in Bhutan. As she was selling her mushrooms in the vegetable market in Thimphu, they were recognised by a Japanese guest. He thought they were similar to the prized Japanese Matsutake. Thus, other villagers were quick to grab the opportunity and began harvesting the Matsutake for commercial sale. The mushroom itself – until then locally nicknamed Po Shamu because of its resemblance to a phallus – was rechristened as Sangay Shamu or Buddha’s mushroom. It was soon being picked and boxed up by the kilo and flown to fungi fans in Japan. The Sangay Shamu season starts in July and lasts through August and September.

The Bhutanese usually cook their mushrooms with chilli and cheese. Nowadays, a common simple dish is known as the Shamu Datshi. The savoury cuisine is made with Matsutake mushrooms, vegetables, a pinch of salt, and cheese. The mushrooms provide most of the flavours infused in the soup, whereas the cheese provides a creamy texture. Sangay Shamu is native to the forest in the Ura Valley in Bumthang and Genekha in Thimphu, where they grow clusters at the base of pine trees — both are known for their mushroom harvest. When Sangay Shamu is rare during autumn and winter, the Bhutanese would then make use of other mushrooms, such as gypsy, shitake, and oyster mushrooms.

 Matsutake mushrooms are becoming rarer. They cannot be cultivated and grown in large numbers domestically. Japanese researchers could only produce a related Baka Matsutake mushroom with an almost similar aroma profile to the wild variant. The very distinct appearance of Sangay Shamu is heavily infused with spicy and earthy flavours and juice that is both complex and irreplicable in the lab.

 Outside of Sangay Shamu season, the mushroom is replaced with other mushrooms like the gypsy, shitake, and oyster mushrooms.

Matsutake Mushroom Festival

The Genekha village (45 minutes from Thimphu) hosts the annual mushroom festival during the second week of August while Ura village in Bumthang celebrates the Matsutake Mushroom festival also annually during the third or fourth week of August. The objective of the festivals are to create awareness about the sustainable harvesting of the local mushroom and enjoy the organic natural flavours of nature.

The festivals showcase interesting activities and experiences such as mushroom picking excursions, sampling delicious mushroom dishes, cultural performances by locals and school children and local sports activities. Once a year during harvesting season, the locals walk through the valley to collect Sangay Shamu. The government of Bhutan legalised mushroom picking to empower the people of these two villages.

Cordyceps Sinensis, the super mushrooms of Bhutan

Apart from the Matsutake Mushroom, Cordyceps Sinensis is also quite popular for its medicinal benefits. Foragers seek out these parasitical super mushrooms from the heads of caterpillars. The fungus is absorbed into the body of the caterpillars. When it is too much, it drains the insect of its life, slowly killing the caterpillar. Due to their rarity (as they are grown only at very high altitudes), and difficulty in harvesting they are highly treasured and sought after.

Studies show that Cordyceps can effectively prevent hyperglycemia (diabetes type 1 or 2) and improve insulin sensitivity. Furthermore, they can reduce the risk of dementia and also have an antidepressant effect. They are available in local shops and make for a great gift for your loved ones.

Mushroom foraging in Ura Valley

Ura is known for being one of the most picturesque valleys in the entire kingdom. Its inhabitants, the Uraps are cheerful, hospitable people. The valley offers an authentic experience of rural Bhutanese life.

An interesting activity to explore in this valley is mushroom picking. Stroll through the majestic forests as you receive in-depth information about the kinds of mushrooms around from your guide. Learn to spot and harvest the legendary wild Matsutake mushrooms of Bhutan. With deep valleys on one side and dark forests on the other, it truly is paradise. Hike the valley’s beautiful trails and enjoy discovering your own personal patch of this rare mushroom. You can also visit the region’s exquisite temples and monasteries, perhaps make some friends, and even relax in ancient outdoor mineral baths.

The different kinds of mushrooms in Bhutan are a sight to behold. Each mushroom variety comes with its own distinctive characteristics and peculiarities so it's interesting to see everything that one can experience during a guided mushroom trip. 

Guests can book mushroom foraging or exploring tours with Bhutanese guides and tour operators.  The experience offers a delightful insight into the culinary heritage of the Bhutanese. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn the basics about mushrooms and find out which ones are edible and which ones are not. One can also experience a one-on-one cooking class with freshly harvested mushrooms.

 So go ahead and try this rare travel experience. Mushroom foraging in Bhutan surely makes for an unforgettable trip!

As Ugyen Tenzin, deputy director of the Royal Textile Academy, explains, textiles have fundamentally shaped Bhutan – not just artistically, but socially and economically. "Weaving has kept families together because, in the past, the skill was passed down from the grandmother to the mother to the daughters. It's basically a family business that has kept families together." It's also kept villages, and rural traditions, alive. "For most people in the weaving regions, it's their livelihood. Except for some specific months [when they do farm work], the rest of the time, women are mostly on their looms. In places like Khoma and Radhi, weaving is their bread and butter."

If the textile industry here has empowered women, it's also benefited from their patronage – particularly that of the Queen Mother, Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, who has revitalised the sector and raised the global profile of the kingdom's remarkable textiles. A long-standing advocate for Bhutan's textile artisans, she is the Textile Museum's Royal Patron, and the Royal Textile Academy's chair. Empowering Bhutanese women is a personal passion: she is also the founder of multiple initiatives and a non-profit organisation, RENEW. Established in 2004, RENEW (Respect Educate Nurture and Empower Women) focuses on sexual and reproductive health, and support for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence – often equipping them with skills that create economic independence, such as weaving.

Weaving together past, present and future

Despite today's availability of machine-made fabrics and ready-to-wear clothing, Bhutan's textiles are firmly in vogue. "Weaving is not declining [in popularity]," says the RTA's Ugyen Tenzin. "People have realised the importance of our textiles. There are so many young people who are taking up weaving very seriously. Natural dyeing is now becoming a trend; practitioners realise that they can make a good income from the weaving business. So they take it very seriously. Young people are just as interested in the textile business as the elders were."

The Bhutanese are every bit as enthusiastic about wearing them, too. Ugyen Tenzin himself is sporting a plaid gho woven for him by his wife. "When I was in Australia for my Master’s, when I got the chance, I would wear my gho to the shopping mall. There were so many eyes on me. But when you are far from your country, you really miss it, you know; you appreciate it."

Back in Thimphu, Kezang Choden agrees. "When I was in junior school, I remember watching movies and seeing kids wearing skirts and beautiful dresses and thinking, 'oh, I wish I could wear beautiful western clothes.' But as you grow up, you start to be very proud of your culture and tradition, and to appreciate where you come from, your roots. I think kira is so elegant. I love wearing it. I wouldn't want to wear anything else." As long as her talented mother and the kingdom’s weavers keep evolving their craft, she won't have to.

Karma Tshering Wangchuk is the fashion designer, illustrator and street-style photographer behind the influential Instagram handle @bhutanstreetfashion. Passionate about the Bhutanese textile heritage, Karma offers private tours tailored to those who share his reverence for the craft. When he’s not in Paris or at Copenhagen Fashion Week, you can spot Karma with his two dogs, Jackie and Miro, scouting the streets of Thimphu for the innate beauty and captivating stories of his people.

Where to shop

Chumey is located in a beautiful valley in Bumthang, where they weave and sell incredible textiles. I feel that Thimphu is a little too commercial these days, but I love to come here and joke around with the weavers.

Where to stay

I always tell my guests to stay at Gangtey Palace. It’s a historical palace, beautifully renovated to offer contemporary comforts. You can partake in the morning prayer ritual at their shrine or just enjoy the view – it’s divine!

Where to eat

I like to take guests to eat dinner with a group of my friends and other locals so they get to experience the real Bhutan. We often go to Zombala 2 in Thimphu for their authentic momos.

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