We’ve all heard of the expensive and elusive truffle but now meet its Middle-Eastern cousin.
If you were to were to wander into the souks (markets) of Kuwait City in early spring, you might get a glimpse of the culinary wonder that is the Desert Truffle. Also known locally as ‘fagga’, the white desert truffle or trimania nivea is in high demand across Arabia and the Persian Gulf and when in season, vendors fight for the chance to sell their wares at the special market that was set up exclusively for their sale in 2006.
Though they are less expensive and more easily sourced than their European counterparts, the commercial value of these truffles has plummeted since the Iraqi invasion of 1990. Foragers from local tribes who were highly skilled in seeking out these rare gems are now wary of forgotten landmines and most have chosen less risky means of livelihood.
The increasing temperatures plus urban sprawl are also contributing to the decline of the Desert Truffle since to thrive, the fungi require rain and space to propagate. Though they are still harvested and imported from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, truffle hunters are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in war-torn regions.
The truffle was an integral part of the food culture for the Bedouin tribes of the Arab region and tgey often use it as a part of their stews and rice dishes. With a high amount of protein and antioxidants, the Bedouin used it both for its flavour and its nutritional value. They also believe it improved eyesight and sex drive, although that claim you might need to take with a pinch of salt.
The sign of an upcoming harvest in Bedouin culture is the onset of a lightning storm since the electricity activates the nitrogen compounds in the rain and encourages the truffles to grow underground. As they mature, they push up and break the surface of the sand making them much easier to spot than the European truffles which grow underground and require trained dogs or pigs to sniff them out.
Though members of the fungi family, this truffle behaves slightly differently from traditional mushrooms. They have a similar earthy flavour as the European truffle, though perhaps not as pungent and slightly headier. They are spongy and add a distinctive layer to gravies and stews but can also be eaten also with coriander and olive oil for freshness. The most common use however is in the rice dish kabsa, a one-pot dish with spiced meat, similar to an Indian biryani. Due to its size and texture, it’s also sometimes treated like a meat substitute – like tofu – and takes on a lot of the flavour of any dish it's added to.
Since they grow wild and are comparatively easy to harvest, they’re usually a lot cheaper than the white and black truffles that we usually hear about. This coupled with their more delicate flavour, larger size and high nutritional value make Desert Truffles a very popular substitute that’s gaining popularity among modern chefs in the region.
If the next few decades ushers in a time of relative peace in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, there’s a distinct chance that Desert Truffles will have the space to make a comeback and perhaps even spread their charms across the world.