Masutake Mushroom Festival

From the highway turnoff halfway between Paro and Thimphu, it's a long drive uphill on pitted dirt roads to reach the mushroom picking camp that hosts a 2-day Masutake Mushroom Festival every year in the middle of August. A homey and small-scale affair, the festival offers a chance for nearby Genyekha villagers to promote this fungus so prized for its distinctive aroma and succulent flavor.

The small clearing of the festival ground lies at the edge of a forest of oaks and pines, where wild masutakes grow in clusters at their feet. Tricholoma matsutake, known locally as sangay shamong, are resistant to cultivation and grow only in forests where leaves do not fall, making them a scarce commodity. Demand for them is especially high in Japan, where imported matsutake — despite losing some aroma in transport — can fetch up to 20,000 yen (~USD 200) per kilogram in Tokyo shops. For some villagers, harvesting wild mushrooms yields the bulk of their yearly income.

The festival's tools of promotion for the elusive fungus are education and entertainment, all done with a spirit of genuine hospitality. The makeshift blue tarpaulin stalls along the monsoon-swollen Thimphu Chhu tributary that bounds the clearing are lined with educational posters. A Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry stall touts the benefits of sustainable agriculture and ecotourism. Another displays fresh-picked mushrooms labeled along the spectrum of toxicity to humans, from edible to downright poisonous (including one that ensures convulsive death within minutes if consumed).

Locals perform on and off throughout the two days: women in their best kiras dancing to traditional songs piped in through a loudspeaker, men singing a capella and dancing in their own colorful costumes to propitiate local deities. Watch it all from the tent set up for VIPs — which means you, as a foreigner.

Be sure to try the matsutake mushroom soup when it's offered. The recipe is simple — boil the fungus, add butter and a pinch of salt — but the result is exquisite: a delectable brew that removes the mystery behind the high prices it commands in foreign cities.