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) . 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  and were peeled and either boiled
These fungi develop underground in the desert. They are usually found in
close proximity to rock-rose or sun-rose plants ,
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
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  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  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 . 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 .
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  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
Truffles feature quite frequently in books on Lebanese cuisine. My oldest
reference only dates to 1966  (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 
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 
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.
- Al Taie, Lamees Abdullah, Al-Azaf - The Omani Cookbook, Oman
Bookshop, Oman, circa 1995
- Al Zayani, Afnan Rashid, A Taste of the Arabian Gulf,
Ministry of Information, Bahrain, 1988
- Brock-Al Ansari, Celia Ann, The Complete United Arab Emirates
Cookbook, Emirates Airlines, Dubai, 1994
- Clayton, David, Kuwait's Natural History, Ahmadi Natural
History Society, Kuwait, circa 1984
- Clayton, David & Keith Wells, Discovering Kuwait's Wildlife,
- Helou, Anissa, Lebanese Cuisine, Grub Street, London, 1994
- Iddison, Philip, Leaves from a Turkish Notebook, PPC 34,
Prospect Books, London, 1990
- Jamil-Garbutt, Nina, The Baghdad Kitchen, The Kingswood
Press, Surrey, 1985
- Jongbloed, Marycke, The Green Guide to the Emirates, Motivate
Publishing, Dubai, 1991
Karaoglan, Aida, Food for the Vegetarian - Traditional Lebanese
Recipes, Interlink Books, New York, 1992
- New Redhouse Turkish-English Dictionary, Redhouse Press,
- Ramsbottom, J, Mushrooms and Toadstools, Bloomsbury Books,
- Rayess, George N, Rayess' Art of Lebanese Cooking,Librairie
du Liban, Beirut, 1966.
- Skipwith, Ashkhain, Ashkhain's Saudi Cooking of Today, Stacey
International, London, 1986
- Townsend, C C and Evan Guest (editors), Flora of Iraq, Volume Four,
Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Baghdad, 1980
- Vine, Dr. Peter J (editor), Natural Emirates - Wildlife and
Environment of the United Arab Emirates, Trident Press, London, 1996
- Wolfert, Paula, Good Food from Morocco, John Murray, London,
- Yassine, Sima Osman and Sadouf Kamal, Middle Eastern Cuisine,
Dar El-Ilm Lil-Malayin, Beirut, 1984
 Discovering Kuwait's Wildlife
 Nina Jamil-Garbutt
 Flora of Iraq
 Lamees Abdullah Al Taie
 Celia Anne Brock Al-Ansari
 Afnan Rashid Al Zayani
 Ashkhain Skipwith
 Paula Wolfert
 George Rayess
 Aida Karaoglan
 Lebanese Cuisine