Jharkhand’s rainchildren

Prized putkos: Monsoon’s delectable gift to the people of Jharkhand

When it rains Putkos, a kind of mushroom, are found just below the soil. Photos by author
Highlights: 
Locally called rugda, it’s a roundish-oval mushroom no larger than a pebble, with a spongy-soft inside and a harder coat outside.

In India, the onset of the monsoon is widely anticipated, partly owing to its agrarian dependence and the fact that Indian summers are mercilessly hot. So, if someone doesn’t break into a rain dance for the above-mentioned reasons, they might as well belong to the ‘pining lovers’ category, whose agony intensifies with every raindrop.

I myself become morose, albeit for a different reason.

The monsoon reminds me of my early childhood spent in McCluskieganj, Jharkhand’s heritage Anglo-Indian hamlet amid luxuriant forests. Frequent power cuts made summers unbearable. And when grey clouds gathered, we rejoiced with the forest-dwelling tribes who inhabited our surrounds. But, rain alone didn’t suffice. Rain had to be accompanied by thunder and lightning. The popular belief being, thunderstorms open up cracks in the ground, which then brings forth Jharkhand’s much-awaited, rare mushroom, putko.

Jharkhand is the land of forests and forest tribes, so it’s no surprise the state’s cuisine is strongly influenced by the local ingredients of its forests — edible leaves or saag, flowers, fruit, tubers and mushrooms including putko.

Locally called rugda, it’s a roundish-oval mushroom no larger than a pebble, with a spongy-soft inside and a harder coat outside. It’s found in clusters, resembling white spider-webs, on the earth’s surface along jungle streams and below trees.

On a hunt

As putko is half-buried in the soil, the rains make them easy to sight and pick.

It’s found abundantly in the forests of Palamu and Ranchi districts, and the jungles around Duli, Nindra and Baseria villages where we, as children, got the ‘putko-hunting’ training.

We liked to refer to these escapades as hunting, not gathering. Besides the fact that hunting sounded more appealing to us kids who’d grown up on the adventures of Famous Five, there were certain inherent dangers involved.

As it began to rain, we’d slip into our gumboots and raincoats, sling a bag over our shoulder, and head off into the jungle.

Inhaling the fresh, damp petrichor of the first rains, we’d make our way under the dripping canopies of sal, mahua, banyan and jamun trees, our eyes peeled for putko, wild boars and creepy-crawlies. We’d often flip a leaf over to find a scorpion with its raised sting, in readiness. Sometimes, we’d get bored and wander off, only to return bellies full of jamun.

Like mushrooms, putkos, too, sprout in the same spot, season after season. Old putko is a sign that a fresh lot is around, ready to be scooped out. Putko spoils quickly, even in the ground. Once harvested, putko can be preserved for one more day if left unwashed. So when there’s more than the family needs for a meal, the surplus is given to neighbours, or sold at haats. Owing to its rarity and because it’s relished by both urban and rural communities, it fetches a good price, anything between Rs 100 and Rs 200, sometimes more. Not surprisingly, around putko season wild beasts are rumoured to visit the jungles. Far from dissuading the keen putko-hunters, armed with axe and sickles, they’d often come across the culprit who’d spread the rumour, himself making a secret haul.

This year, the warning is for a cheetah!

More than a meal

Although a variant of mushroom, putko has a distinct earthy flavour, and unlike the quick-cooking mushrooms that require little or no spice, preparing this delicacy involves slow cooking, lots of stirring, and plenty of spices.

But before that, putko calls for thorough cleaning, best washed in a bamboo basket by rubbing the putko against the basket walls under running tap-water. Once the soil washes away, each putko is scraped clean to remove any leftover traces of mud. The putko is cut, and only the tender ones, with a creamy white or light-brown centre, are eaten.


Cooked putkos

Cooked with onion, ginger-garlic paste, to which cumin, coriander, turmeric and red-chilli powder are added, along with fresh tomato, salt and a little water, the recipe is rustic and best kept that way. It retains the organic dish’s authenticity.

Although locals savour it with steaming white rice, I prefer my spicy-hot putko wrapped in soft roti. Slightly chewy even after done, each mouthful is a burst of intense earthy flavours that conjure up delicious memories of the first rains, wet earth, and putko-hunting.

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