It’s just the beginning of the rainy season in northern Namibia. Areas that were baked in the unrelenting Namibian sun for most of the year welcome the deluge that starts in late December and continues through March, dumping meters of water and supplying much of the yearly supply of fresh water to the traditional farms and towns that dot this ancient ancestral home to the Herero, Himba, Damara, Ovambo, Kavango, and Nama peoples.
It’s during this time that these subsistence farmers plant their basic food crop, mahangu, a type of millet that is pounded into a meal and eaten as porridge with almost every meal. They will plant maize and other vegetable and feed crops that will rapidly grow to maturity during the life-giving rains. It is also the time of year when once dry lakes and riverbeds come alive with barber fish, a type of catfish that is released from hibernation by the flood waters.
It is during this time of year that you can find omajowa, a variety of mushroom that sprouts from the many termite mounds that punctuate the northern Namibian landscape. What makes these particular mushrooms interesting is the size. From tip to tip they can grow up to a meter long and a fully developed cap can be the size of a dinner plate!
Yeah, we’re talking BIG MUSHROOMS!
Not only are they big, they are delicious! My first encounter with these big, tasty beauties was in January, 2020. I was traveling to Ondangwa with my host organization, The Rössing Foundation, when we notice some locals flagging cars and waving what looked large white bones. We pulled over and I was instructed to remain quiet. It seems that the haggled price increases dramatically if the sellers hear an American accent. (I wonder why?)
After several minutes of intense haggling we came away with several enormous, but slightly immature mushrooms. I was told that getting the mushrooms before the caps fully developed insures a more tender and flavorful experience.
We stayed at a guest house and one of the staff volunteered to prepare the mushrooms for us. She cooked up 4 for us and kept 2 for herself. The result was a big bowl full of what looked like sautéed diced chicken. The flavor was interesting, falling somewhere between chicken and veal or pork and the texture was like chicken breast.
In March, 2020, not long before I along with all PCVs worldwide were sent home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had another opportunity to experience omajowa. During another trip to the north, where my colleagues and I drove through calf-deep water for kilometers in areas that, just a few months before I saw the desiccated remains of livestock that succumb to the drought in the area, I was lucky enough to buy several of these stupendous mushrooms to try my hand at preparing them.
Keep in mind that I’d only seen these immense mushrooms once before and had never cooked them. But, after talking to several friends about how best to prepare them, I figured I’d give it a go.
Step 1: Skin it
These giant fungi have a fibrous epidermis that is edible (I’m told), but not desirable. So ya gotta skin them. Luckily they peel fairly easily, like a big white carrot.
Step 2: Chop It
The stem is round and fibrous and look a lot like scallops. I decided to cut the cap into strips, each about the size of my palm.
Step 3: Season It
I broke out my small pan, added a dollop of butter, some chopped green onions and garlic, then added the shrooms. Like all mushrooms I’ve prepped in the past, these reduce in size as you cook them. I sautéed until they started to brown on the edges and the meat was tender with a fork. I lightly salted them. That was it!
Step 4: Enjoy!
One gigantic mushroom was more than enough for me and I had enough to share. It was DELICIOUS! It’s a shame Namibia can’t export these beauties because they would be a huge culinary hit worldwide.
Portabellas can’t match them. Shitakes are no contest. Whites take a backseat. In fact, every edible mushroom pale in flavor, texture, and most of all, size, compared to Omajowas, The Mushroom King.