My uncle is an avid nature lover. After his regular walks through the forest, he sends us his beautiful photographs. We receive photos of multicoloured trees trying to hold on to their dying leaves. Cobwebs between the branches shine and glint in the autumn sun. We melt at the sight of a wild boar with her offspring crossing the sand path and smile when the first daffodils climb their way up through the grass. Recently he sent us a photo of a gleaming mushroom with the words: ‘You don’t have these in the desert, do you?’ ‘No’, I answered him, ‘but we have desert truffles!’
Because of the dry and hot climate and the lack of suitable habitats, only a few species of fungi occur in the desert. However, during periods of high humidity or rain desert truffles can grow underground. These edible fruiting mushrooms grow in the sand of the low dunes from the great Arabian Desert to Basra in Iraq. The Bedouins locate the truffles easily by cracks in the soil, which arise after the earth around the truffle has dried up by the sun. They call them fagah (UAE, Kuwait), faag (Saudi Arabia) or kama’a (Syria and Iraq).
Desert truffles live in symbiosis with the rock rose (Helianthemum lippii). A small green shrub-like plant with leaves in the shape of elongated coffee beans and small yellow flowers. The plant is also known as Raqroek in Arabic (Qatar).
Desert truffles look like small lobed potatoes or prunes in shades of cream to brown. Their structure is firm, but not hard. They are virtually odorless with a touch of sand and dust. Not very attractive. Nevertheless, they are an Arabian delicacy. Once processed the meaty truffle imbibes the flavor from the dish and adds an authentic desert aroma to it.
If you ever find a faag or fagah on the Arab market it is worth considering buying it. Head into the desert, build a nice campfire and throw some truffles in the hot ashes. After a few minutes of grilling your meal is ready!