KUWAIT CITY: White or beige, but never black, the “desert truffle” is a rare delicacy with a dedicated marketplace in Kuwait, where remnants of the Iraqi invasion and changing weather patterns have decimated local production.
Less prestigious and less expensive than its darker cousin, the Middle Eastern truffle is a prized ingredient for bedouins, who integrate it into their traditional rice and meat dishes or in sauces, boiled with onions.
On the outskirts of Kuwait City, in the Rai industrial district, connoisseurs begin perusing the truffle souk at 9:00 am, surveying the various weights and colors and using their noses to select the best fungus by smell.
Some barter while others go straight for the top shelf, with the “Zebidi” variety especially prized for its use in traditional recipes.
Demand is so high in the Gulf emirate’s market that each year hundreds of merchants compete for limited stall space during the cooler winter months.
The market was devised by the municipality of Al-Rai, an industrial zone just northwest of Kuwait City, which oversees quality control and guarantees the traceability of the fungus.
“We decided to build this market in 2006 to organize sales of this product, which you used to find in all sorts of corners in Kuwait,” said Faisal al-Jomaa, vice-governor of Kuwait City.
This year, he said, 520 merchants applied for one of the nine-square-meter (97-square-foot) stalls. Just 123 vendors secured space.
One of them was Iranian Abdel Ali Said, who has bought and sold truffles since the 1960s.
“They come from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and beyond,” he said of his truffle selection.
Prices range from seven to 20 Kuwaiti dinars ($23 to $67) per kilogram depending on the quality, according to Said.
This year, the market is reportedly flooded with truffles from Libya.
“That happens every six years,” said Kuwaiti merchant Mohammed al-Shammari on a recent day in the truffle market. “Production is cyclical. You also have a lot coming from Tunisia this year”.
To drive home just h ow popular truffles are among Kuwaitis, Shammari pointed out that “three to four tons are imported daily, and sold fresh”.
But for all its love of truffles, Kuwait’s own commercial cultivation and harvesting of the fungus has plummeted to zero since Iraq invaded the emirate in 1990.