New facility to produce gourmet mushrooms that can be customised, starting from petri dish

Bewilder managing director Ng Sze Kiat (third from left) with employees (from far left) Caroline Woon, Joshua Lee and Michaela Davlyne Wong Xing Yi. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Mushroom lovers here will soon be able to enjoy gourmet lion's mane, chestnut and oyster mushrooms grown locally, starting in a petri dish in a laboratory, at a new facility in Bukit Merah.

And the fungi can be customised. If a chef wants tiny pink oyster mushrooms, growth conditions can be manipulated to produce that, said Bewilder, the company behind the set-up.

Two-year-old Bewilder, which has been conducting workshops to create fungi ornamentals and selling mushroom growth kits, is moving into the food farming scene with the setting up of the 3,500 sq ft new facility.

Fruiting chambers for the mushrooms to emerge, incubation rooms, a laboratory and a classroom to conduct workshops are in the works. Currently, only the lab is fully operational.

The company, which calls itself a "mycological design studio", was previously housed in a 700 sq ft space in Henderson. Mycology refers to the study of fungi.

Bewilder managing director Ng Sze Kiat, 42, believes that his company is the only mushroom-rearing facility in Singapore that produces fungi from cultures and strains in petri dishes. He said that farms here usually import grow bags and fruit the fungi in Singapore.

Mr Ng said his company's mushroom yield is three to five times more than those of existing farms here, because of its concerted effort to produce optimal mushroom strains and optimise their growth conditions.

Each mushroom culture on a petri dish - whether for golden oyster or shiitake - is born from the fungi's root network, known as mycelium, which appears as fine, white threads.

In the area of local food production, Singapore is broadening its focus beyond leafy vegetables, eggs and fish to three other food types - mushrooms, fruited crops like tomatoes, and shrimp.

In Parliament last month, it was announced that farms producing the three food types can benefit from higher co-funding under the Agri-food Cluster Transformation Fund. There are currently at least three licensed mushroom farms in Singapore.

Bewilder's process of cultivating fungi starts with splitting open a mushroom, such as a lion's mane, and cutting a slice of its inner flesh. The morsel of flesh is placed on a petri dish filled with nutrient-rich agar for mycelium to feed on and grow.

The mycelium grows from the mushroom flesh, filling the petri dish in days. Some of the mycelium will be snipped away to further multiply in a nutrient broth, and then in millet grains, a type of cereal, to make the fungi roots grow faster and vigorously.

The mycelium grown in the grains will later be embedded in a mushroom grow bag, or substrate bag.

The bag contains a mixture of local waste such as sawdust and used coffee grounds, as well as water and nutrients. Kept in temperature-controlled incubation rooms, the bag acts as the soil for mushrooms.

Mr Ng said the components of the grow bag differ for each type of mushroom, and it took him numerous trials and tests to figure out the best formula for each species, and the temperatures the mushrooms thrive in.

Bewilder managing director Ng Sze Kiat injecting a syringe of liquid culture that contains mycelium into a bottle of millet grains on April 6, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Once the mycelium fully colonises a grow bag, the bag will stay in the incubation room for another week.

"The mycelium will then realise there is no more food. It will want to form mushrooms to drop spores for the next generation, since mushrooms are reproductive organs," explained Mr Ng.

The grow bag is then taken to the fruiting chamber.

Mr Ng is an artist by training, with a background in film-making. Ten years ago, he set aside his camera and turned towards the humble mushroom as his canvas. He is a self-taught mushroom grower, who also learnt to grow pharmaceutical-grade cordyceps, or medicinal fungi, in Vietnam.

In the fruiting chamber, conditions such as carbon dioxide levels, humidity and lighting can be manipulated to sculpt mushrooms into different sizes and shapes.

The mycelium, or roots (white threads) of Pearl oyster mushroom growing inside a bag of substrate. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The various parameters act like his paintbrushes. By playing around with the conditions, he can produce healthy yields of mushrooms, or twist fungi into a bonsai.

"If chefs ask for super tiny pink oysters, we can do that by tailoring the parameters," he said.

Bewilder has five employees trained in fields including architecture, crafts and industrial design. Some of them have expertise in creating biodegradable materials and ornaments from fungi.

A fungi purist, Mr Ng spent at least six months on each mushroom species to ensure that every crop yielded a large bouquet of mushrooms.

Pink and golden oyster mushrooms grown with the optimal mushroom culture and a mixture of waste substrate. PHOTO: BEWILDER

Bewilder is looking to get its farm licence later this year. As a start, the facility would be able to produce up to 600kg of mushrooms every month.

Its gourmet mushrooms - from yanagi-matsutake to five types of oysters - would reach customers through subscription boxes. Mr Ng did not elaborate on cost, but said the price of Bewilder's products will be competitive with gourmet mushrooms in the market.

He also hopes to set up fruiting containers in various parts of the island so that people can be employed to rear mushrooms in Bewilder's grow bags.

"This will help to make high-quality and fresh gourmet mushrooms more accessible to the community," he said.

The mycelium-based "meat" which Mr Ng Sze Kiat pan seared. PHOTO: BEWILDER

Mr Ng has also experimented with creating mushroom-based meat alternatives from mycelium. By fermenting the versatile white threads, he transformed the mycelium into a foam-like mass.

When he harvested and pan-seared the foamy mycelium, it resembled grilled chicken.

"It tasted like ham. To me, it can replace ham or chicken."

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