Discovering the desert truffle, in the UAE

Discovering the desert truffle, in the UAE

A seasonal vegetable, desert truffles sprout up after the rain in the Emirates

A great ingredient to attempt fusion dishes, quite perfect for UAE palates! Image Credit: Shutterstock

You may or may not have seen them when you went camping in the recent past - truffles, especially desert truffles have a knack of being tad elusive. Perhaps one of the reasons that many in the UAE are not fully aware of this delicious fungi that's in season right now!

Gulf News Food felt compelled to inform our readers, so you could take advantage of this locally available bounty and support the movement to use what's around us, rather than add to our carbon footprint by going for what needs to travel thousands of miles to reach us. And it is a great ingredient to attempt fusion dishes, so quite perfect for UAE palates!

A bit of background

A lesser known delicacy of Emirati cuisine, desert truffles are a part of the fungi family, and are known as Terfeziaceae. They also go by the names of fagha or kama in Arabic. These truffles take form after rain and thunderstorms drench the desert. During the spring season, the soil cracks, and they swell beneath and harvest begins.

We caught up with Chef Mussabbeh Al Kaabi, the first Emirati chef of the UAE, to get a bit more insight into this delicacy from the desert. He said: “It grows in the desert after rain and thunder, so it’s seasonal. It’s available in the UAE and can be used to cook dishes like Saloona (meat-based curry). You can find it in big markets like the Waterfront Market [in Deira]; and is a local truffle.”

Desert truffles play a key role in Emirati culture, and are quite unique in the way they are harvested. For one, it can be spotted easily with the eye, however it can be a tiresome process because it requires harvesters to cover long stretches of the desert.

It can be spotted easily with the eye, however it can be a tiresome process because it requires harvesters to cover long stretches of the desert Image Credit: Shutterstock

As they mature, these truffles crack the ground, making it easier to find. “It’s quite easy to find them,” explained Emirati Chef Ali Yazdi, who is the owner of Slaw, a burger bar in the UAE. “We actually use them in stews or dishes like machboos, kabsa or any one-pot dishes. When you cook with it, one must treat it like any other protein product, such as meat or seafood. You have to clean it well, because they are found beneath the soil. Then you have to chop it into bite-sized pieces. Also note, that the bigger the truffle, the more expensive it gets.

“Then comes the boiling and cooking of the truffle. One would think it is difficult, but it only takes 15 to 20 minutes to tenderise, despite having a thick and strong texture. Once it’s boiled, mix it with spices like cumin, cardamom, bezar (Emirati spice mix) blends, and onions – like how you would for a regular chicken dish – and stir fry it to perfection.”

Desert truffles are served with rice. When cooked outdoors, truffles are roasted over hot coals with salt and goat meat fat, as per Emirati tradition.

What do they taste like?

Desert truffles have a similar appearance to that of a regular potato. They have an “earthy flavour” explained Chef Ali. When taken out of the sand, they are white in colour, however, when exposed to air, they become oxidised and turn a hue between beige and brown. Spongy in texture, they can also be eaten as is, after cleaning by drizzling with olive oil and garnishing with coriander leaves.

When taken out of the sand, they are white in colour, however, when exposed to air, they become oxidised and turn a hue between beige and brown Image Credit: Shutterstock

Packed with benefits, desert truffles are known for its antioxidants and are quite valuable to the Emirati diet. It was also initially used as medicine, however, truffles are a seasonal ingredient in every Middle Eastern kitchen. One would find desert truffles in three forms, and it can be distinguished from their colour – white or zubaidi, black or khulas, and one with a red or pink hue.

Desert truffles grow during the months of January to April, along with the shrubs of the Helianthemum species, often known as rock rose. According to a study titled ‘Pre-symbiotic Interactions Between the Desert Truffle Terfezia boudieri and Its Host Plant Helianthemum sessiliflorum’, the thin fungal filaments present in the shrubs become tangled with the plant’s roots, sharing nutrients from the soil, much likely in exchange for sugar from the plants.

Due to its rarity, many homes wait for the season to cook with it. “Desert truffles aren’t like your usual European ones. They are like jewels in the sand, which only sparkle after a rain. However, it is available all year in Shiraz, Iran. It’s unique in every way – its look, feel, and even taste,” explained Chef Ali.

Identifying these truffles, are the hard part. A good truffle is firm, with a strong earthy smell and colour. A bad one, on the other hand, is discoloured with a foul odour, and can be inedible.

Desert truffles have over 700 years of history and use in Emirati culture, some of them being a key ingredient in traditional Arabic cooking. Try out Chef Ali’s home recipe to making desert truffle machboos here.

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