A Surprise Medicinal Mushroom Museum in Penang

An unexpected find at a chicken rice restaurant this past week.

I pop into Fatty Loh's Chicken Rice restaurant, hoping to pick up a late lunch. From the outside I’m met by two tigers, a towering 3-meter-tall statue of a chef giving a thumbs up and holding a plate with a roasted chicken, a wooden water wheel, lanterns, and that unique Chinese character typography that gives the eclectic place character.

After ordering, the lady tells me with a smile to go inside and check the place out. To my surprise, I find myself teleported to a Chinese antique museum.

Behind the rows of tables is a long hall lined with old photographs and posters and figurines, an old Sega Game Gear, clocks and pots and vases, a massive Buddha statue.

But what catches my attention the most is a neon-lit glass display case with a large assortment of dried-out medicinal mushrooms.

Tiger Milk Mushroom

TMM has been on my bucketlist to find out in the wild, but as a result of its unique growth habit, coupled with deforestation, finding TMM is very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

According to Malaysian Aboriginal folklore, the Tiger Milk Mushroom (TMM) or Lignosus rhinocerus originates from tigress milk that drops onto the forest floor.

This myth surrounding TMM might have risen from the fact that Lignosus rhinocerus grows in isolation: you'll only find one stalk at a time within a 5km radius.

Most Chinese families in the 50s and 60s kept Tiger Milk Mushroom in their homes as a handy medicine for cough, cold, and asthma.

The stalk and polypore cap poke out above the ground like a small satellite dish. Buried underground lies the sclerotium, a tuber that possesses all the medicinal compounds. The Malaysians use it to treat various ailments, including breast, liver, and lung cancer.

On the other side of the display is a basket filled with TMM tubers, and the outer skin is cracked like dried-out elephant skin. A jar is filled to the brim with more, and Ganoderma lucidum (reishi) is behind. 

The owner's daughter explained some of the other mushrooms to me. She points to a red cloth covering a mystery box and tells me that some orange growth is in there but cannot be exposed to the sunlight during the day or risk being damaged. I joke that it's a vampire mushroom. 

Antrodia camphorata

On my second visit, however, I get lucky and am allowed a peek behind the curtain. Sitting in water, a monstrous mycelial orange block filled the tank. The condensation inside the glass made me think of something out of a sci-fi horror film. I'm told it's the fermented mycelium of Antrodia camphorata (smells citrusy and tastes very bitter).

Antrodia camphorata

This growth is brown heart rot of the aromatic tree Cinnamomum kanehirae and is used in Taiwanese traditional medicine as a remedy for cancer, hypertension, fighting fatigue, warding off itching, and hangover.

The son tells me that because it’s been sitting in the tank for many years, it's huge - and is worth over RM100K ($22K USD)! The annual market for this species is worth over $100 million in Taiwan alone.

Antrodia cinnamomea in a petri dish. Photo by Eric Cho.

I reached out to a Taiwanese friend and mentioned the day’s finds. He backs up the health claims by stating he coincidentally did a study project on A. cinnamomea for his MS degree. He says the cancer-fighting compound, Antroquinonol, is under clinical trial and was discovered by his boss in 2008. Small world!

Though over the past century, there’s been a disconnect between Eastern and Western medicine; as medicine in the West starts to acknowledge the need for more integrative health care, traditional remedies that have been used for thousands of years are being re-examined. Especially exciting is the potential of medicinal mushrooms.

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Joseph Pallante