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by: Marijcke Jongbloed

  Because some good rain fell before December of last year, and if January remains relatively dry, it is possible that this March you’ll see many local people roaming around the low shrubland along the coast, their gaze fixed on the ground, searching for something. What they are looking for is a sign, a small patch of cracked soil in the neighbourhood of a certain plant – the telltale sign of the presence of the underground mushroom that is locally called ‘faqah’. It is considered to be a delicacy and it is very expensive because it is rare and is becoming ever more so. It is a fungus that grows in symbiosis with a member of the Rockrose family (Cistaceae), Helianthemum lippii, locally called ‘rugrug’ or ‘jeraid’. This plant grows in the narrow strip of land that lies just inland from the beaches as well as much less widespread in certain areas of the mountains. Apparently the truffles obtain nourishment by sending out filaments that penetrate the roots of the rock rose plant. Researchers speculate that in return the truffle produces a substance that inhibits competing plants. The areas between Jumeirah and Jebel Ali used to be a good finding place, but that site has now been taken up by buildings that have come up like mushrooms! Now the only areas that are still known to be good ‘faqah’ sites are between Ajman and Ras al Khaymah. But even there construction sites are increasing in frequency and extent, and soon the UAE ‘faqah’ will be the stuff of legends.

  John Feeney, a writer/photographer from New Zealand who spent four decades in Cairo, has dug into the truffle’s past and tells some wonderful tales. Papyrus writings mention that desert fungi were served to the pharaohs of Egypt, while three thousand years later the tables of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo were also graced with local truffles. Aristoteles’ pupil Theophrastus referred to truffles in 500 BC as “a natural phenomenon of great complexity, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fibre, branch, bud, leaf or flower.”

  No one has ever managed to grow truffles under cultivation. All of them grow wild and often in symbiosis with other plants. The edible part of the fungus is the fruit body. The 30 or so species of desert truffles are all members of the Terfezia or Tirmania genera, cousins of the white fragrant truffles of Piedmont, Alba and Umbria in Itlay and the “black pearls of the Perigord” in France that grow around the roots of oak and hazelnut trees.

  The underground mushroom of the desert occurs in many countries and has many different names. In Kuwait it is called fugaa or fagga, in Iraq and Syria they are called kamaa (the classical Arabic name) or kima, and in Oman either faqah, kumba or zubaidee. In North Africa, from where the Romans used to get their mushrooms, there was a white variety that was called terfez and this gave them their Latin genus name Terfezia. The English common name is truffle, but they do not resemble the European truffle, which are from a different botanical genus (Tuber spp.), in appearance or taste. Local folklore maintains that the growth of the ‘faqah’ is set off by thunder and lightning, giving evidence of the association with rainfall that I have observed personally.

  There are many different varieties of desert truffles. The most famous one is the cream-coloured ‘zubaidee’ that grows in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia and has a very delicate flavour. From the same area is the ‘khalasi’, which is black with a pinkish-ivory interior. Local truffles are mainly brown, up to 10 cm in diameter, knobbly, looking like a small potato. They are light in weight with a dense structure and smell faintly of mushroom. The truffles found near the Rock rose bushes in the mountains apparently are much larger in size. A local farmer once told me that he had found a ‘faqah’ that weighed more than a kilo, and when he cut it open a snake was found inside that had used a hollow part of the mushroom as a burrow. It was hard to imagine this, but the farmer was adamant that it was true.

  In the early eighties, when there had been abundant early rains I spent many hours searching the coastal shrubland in Jumeirah. The best time to search is at dawn and dusk when the low slanting rays of the sun will show up any irregularity in the sand that may betray the presence of the truffle a hand’s breadth below the surface. Even though I was familiar with the Rockrose plant near which the faqah grows and knew to look for the cracked soil, I never managed to find one. It takes a practiced eye. Emirati and Pathan fellow searchers were more successful than I was.

  Once found and harvested, desert truffles have to be kept dark and cool, preferably in baskets, never in plastic bags. Phil Iddison, an expert on Mediterranean dishes, put some in the freezer as an experiment and found that the taste did not suffer by this treatment. Because of their rarity and the need to be very fresh, desert truffles can be very expensive. In good years they may cost between 50 to 150 dhs a kilo, but if they have to be imported from far away countries like Egypt, they may reach a price as high as 1000 dhs a kilo.

  In 1998, another good ‘faqah’ year, I was given a handful of mushrooms by a local friend who had found them near Ajman. These I cleaned and sautéed as instructed, but I found the taste insignificant that time. I assume the taste depends on the variety of desert truffle and possibly also on the conditions under which it has grown.

  Iddison mentions that his first experience was also disappointing, but that he had better luck with a heavily spiced Omani dish called ‘kumba muqashad’ and an Emirati dish called ‘saloona’ or ‘laham murraq’. The latter dish is a lamb stew with spices that has to cook on low heat for ninety minutes. By this time the ‘faqah’ has a reddish-brown colour and a strong meaty fungal flavour. Bahrain has a dish called ‘aeesh alfaqa’a’ for truffles with rice. In Saudi Arabia they are included in a dish cooked with eggs. In a Lebanese recipe the truffles are cleaned thoroughly, marinated in oil, lemon and garlic and grilled on skewers, a dish called ‘kama meshwi’.

  Feeney gives the recipe of a Cream of Desert Truffle Soup – a gourmet’s delight if ever there was one, according to him.

I quote:

For this recipe you’ll need not only a basket of white desert truffles, but also a female camel. If the camel isn’t handy, substitute whole milk, or, even better, light cream.

9 or 10 medium-sized white desert truffles, very fresh

4 cups whole milk or light cream

1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped

2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

4 more cups of whole milk or light cream

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons white all-purpose flour

1 beef bouillon cube

½ tablespoon granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

salt and freshly ground white pepper

¼ tablespoon unsalted butter

¾ cups light cream


  1. Immerse the truffles in cold water for 10 minutes. Throw out the water and loose sand and cover them with water again. Repeat. Gently massage each truffle under running water with your fingers and scrub them lightly with a fine brush. Rinse. Scrub and rinse again until all sand is removed. Roughly chop all but two of the truffles.

  2. Put onion and garlic in the first four cups of milk and boil for five minutes. Then add the chopped truffles. Simmer gently for another three minutes. Puree the mixture in a blender and set aside.

  3. Make a white roux by heating the remaining cups of milk very hot but not boiling. Melt one tbsp of butter in another pan and when it starts to froth, turn down the heat and stir in the flour until it is all absorbed by the butter and becomes a thick paste. Pour in the very hot milk, half a cup at a time. Keep stirring until a smooth, creamy sauce is achieved. Let it simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

  4. Slowly stir in the pureed truffle mixture until it is absorbed into the sauce. Drop in the bouillon cube and the sugar.  Add salt and white and cayenne pepper. Stir in the three quarters of a cup of cream and the quarter tablespoon of butter for finishing.

  5. Just before serving grate the two remaining truffles very fine directly into the soup.

  6. Kept in a sealed jar the finished soup will keep its truffle flavour for several days.

(I think it would be interesting to put the following remarks in a separate box with small prints of as many of the pictures of the B-series in order to show the great variety – you could do them like a row of contact prints of the slides…)

  Besides the underground mushrooms the desert is home to quite a few species of mushrooms of the ordinary above-ground kind. I have photographic records of more than 20 different species. As far as I know none of these have been identified as yet and nothing is known about whether they are edible or not. The trouble is that in order to identify a mushroom, one needs specimens of young, mature and old mushrooms as well as a print of the spore pattern collected from a mature specimen. The desert mushrooms grow often singly and far apart in time and space, so that a collection as described above is impossible. In rare cases a mushroom may be identified from a single specimen. This was the case with a very strange mushroom that looked exactly like a golf-tee. It was collected in the middle of the sand dunes south of the Sharjah-Ras al Khaymah road by a friend who thought there was a rusted nail sticking out of the sand. The mushroom had an underground part that was at least thirty times as long and equally thick as the part above ground. When sent to a university in the UK it caused quite a stir because this species of mushroom had only been recorded from the Indian subcontinent so far. There are several species of garden mushroom with long thin stems that grow in groups. They resemble European meadow mushrooms that are often edible. Another mushroom we called “hershey’s kisses” because with their glossy chocolate-brown, conical caps they resembled the famous candy. There are white mushrooms with round caps that emit their spores from the center of the cap like puff balls, and white club-shaped mushrooms with scaly exteriors. There are several species of brackets, some golden, others black, often growing on the ghaf tree. I have found huge irregularly shaped fungi on salty soil near the coast as well as tiny delicate-stemmed “fairy stools” among rocks in the mountains. Apart from the garden mushrooms, none of the mushrooms I have recorded could have been imported, as they were mainly found far away from human interference. Some young Emirati with a keen interest and a spirit of perseverance and adventure should make the mushrooms of the UAE a study subject!


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