Desert Truffles
Desert Truffles
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Truffles in Middle Eastern Cookery

by Philip Iddison

Truffles were a mystery to the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans but this did not prevent their culinary enjoyment and a knowledge of several varieties from various locations. The north African provinces were famous for their white truffles, called terfez. This name was adopted as the scientific name for a family of underground funghi, loosely classified as truffles. They are distributed around the Mediterranean and Middle East and have some structural differences to the true truffles. Most historical accounts invest them with significant value as a food item for the native populations.

I first saw desert truffles in Kuwait where the name is fuga (Tirmania nivea) [1]. On a subsequent posting to Iraq I encountered them for sale in Baghdad in the autumn; the Iraqi name is kamaa, kima or chima in some local dialects. They were a seasonal luxury food in Iraq [2] and were peeled and either boiled or sauteed.

These fungi develop underground in the desert. They are usually found in close proximity to rock-rose or sun-rose plants [3], Helianthemum lippii, H. salicifolium and H. ledifolium (Cistaceae) with which they appear to have a symbiotic relationship. Arabic names for these host plants are hashma, khudhr, rugrug, jaraid, jaraid ach-chima and jerait. These are all important grazing plants for animals, including camels, as they continue the fodder supply after the spring annuals have died back in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait.

The fungi appeared in the Kuwaiti suq from November to January according to the progression of the season. Wet autumns favoured a heavy crop and conversely a dry autumn induced a scarcity which sent prices rocketing as they are highly esteemed. Gatherers rely on memory and experience of the lie of the land, hollows being a common habitat. An additional help is the fact that the growth of the fungal fruit body often causes the ground surface to crack. It is worth stating that the Kuwait desert is a relatively flat sand and gravel plain with few dunes.

The truffles are a pale sandy brown in colour, roughly spherical but with a tendency to irregular lobes and bumps and they vary from one to seven centimetres in size. They are quite light, about the density of button mushrooms, and have a slightly spongey texture. There is no particular smell.

There is one major culinary drawback. The method of growth seems to trap pockets of sand in folds within the fruit body and cleaning them is a protracted and not necessarily successful operation. Biting into sand is a disconcerting experience!

I bought some truffles in the Kuwait suq in a year of plenty and spent a good deal of time washing them before slicing and boiling them as we had been advised. They were still slightly gritty and rather tasteless particularly so after an experimental freeze of some of the cooked samples. An alternative suggestion was to fry them in butter but this was not tried. Their consumption leads to excessive flatulence. To my mind they are over-rated but I can appreciate the appeal of this traditional and local foodstuff for the Kuwaitis.

In the Oman truffles are called kumba. In a recipe from the Dhofar region [4] the preparation of the truffles is similar to other countries but they are boiled and added to a sauteed onion, garlic, and tomato sauce flavoured with the spices used for meat dishes.

Desert truffles, fugaa, faqah, fig-aa or zubadee are also found in the United Arab Emirates. These subterranean mushrooms belong to the Trefezia species and live in symbiosis with Helianthemum lippii, as in Kuwait. They are not true truffles. They are still a popular traditional food, sought by nationals after early rains. The one recipe available is highly flavoured and spiced [5] in a similar manner to the Oman recipe. Sizes up to 10 cm. are quoted.

The only specimens seen to date in Al Ain were imported Tunisian truffles in local supermarkets. These were 3-6 cm. in size, pale creamey white darkening with storage. They had an irregular knobbly shape, were quite dense and had a slight mushroom aroma. There was a stronger funghal aroma on cutting them open and they had no appreciable skin. The flesh was of medium density and smooth, white with slightly darker glands and some pinhole voids. Cleaned, sliced and fried they were a little sandy internally and had quite a mild flavour with a good texture. They were midway gastronomically between the Kuwaiti (sandy, little flavour and spongey) and Turkish truffles from Gaziantep (firm, no sand inclusions and excellent flavour, see below). I speculate that the reason several recipes call for the truffles to be chopped up is to release as much of the internal sand as possible.

Bahrain has a recipe aeesh alfaqa'a for truffles with rice [6]. Again climatic conditions have to be ideal for a significant local crop and this is being diminished by the reduction in extent and damage to the desert environment. Prices of 40-60 per kilo are quoted.

Saudi Arabian dessert truffles, faqa' or kama' from the eastern province are recorded as being red, white or black in colour [7]. They appear in the markets in November-December and supply is dependant on the amount of rainfall as in other countries. White specimens are the most delectable and may be used instead of meat in dishes. Recipes include a lamb dish, a puree and a dish cooked with eggs.

An account of truffles in Moroccan cuisine [8] is at some odds with my sample of Tunisian truffles. It describes them as white but also likens their taste to potatoes! However this is a reference to canned truffles. No Arabic name is given.

Eastern Turkey also has truffle species which appear in local markets. We tracked them down in Gaziantep in May, when they were the equivalent of 80 pence for a quarter kilo. They were covered in fine mud, only removed after soaking and repeated brushing which revealed a roughish dark brown skin. They had a firm consistency and sliced cleanly to reveal orangey-pink marbled flesh under the thin skin. The slices were threaded onto skewers alternating with seasoned kofte mince. Brushed with oil they went on the barbecue and cooked very well, retaining their firm texture. They had a good nutty flavour reminiscent of almond. The skins were a little tough and further research revealed Turkish recipes which recommended abrading the skin before grilling. These truffles are collected in the pistachio orchards which surround Gaziantep. The Turkish name is keme, derived from the Arabic. The Redhouse Turkish dictionary gives two scientific names, Tuber micheli (truffle) and T. brumale (winter truffle).

Truffles feature quite frequently in books on Lebanese cuisine. My oldest reference only dates to 1966 [9] (in translation from the Arabic) and has three recipes for truffles, ragout of truffle with meat, broiled truffle and truffle sauted. All refer to "dark in colour truffles" and I suspect that the truffle variety used is nearer to the Turkish specimens.

On the other hand a book of vegetarian Lebanese food [10] has a recipe for grilled white truffles, kama meshwi, indicating the possibility of another species. These are cleaned thoroughly, marinated in oil, lemon and garlic and grilled on skewers. The Tunisian specimens would have fitted this description. Anissa Helou [11] does not give a detailed description for kamah but concurs with the preparation details and other aspects of the Lebanese recipes.

I believe that the common mushroom is unknown in classical Arabic cuisine.




REFERENCES


[1] Discovering Kuwait's Wildlife

[2] Nina Jamil-Garbutt

[3] Flora of Iraq

[4] Lamees Abdullah Al Taie

[5] Celia Anne Brock Al-Ansari

[6] Afnan Rashid Al Zayani

[7] Ashkhain Skipwith

[8] Paula Wolfert

[9] George Rayess

[10] Aida Karaoglan

[11] Lebanese Cuisine




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