White or beige, but never black, the "desert truffle" is a rare delicacy with a dedicated market in Kuwait, where the remnants of the Iraqi invasion and changing weather conditions have decimated local produce.
Less prestigious and less expensive than its darker cousin, the Middle Eastern truffle is a prized ingredient for the Bedouins, who integrate it into their traditional rice and meat dishes or in sauces, boiled with onions.
On the outskirts of Madinat al-Kuwait, in the industrial district of Rai, at 9 in the morning connoisseurs start leafing through the truffle souk, detecting the various weights and colors and selecting the best mushroom with the nose with the nose.
The truffle in the Rai industrial district
Some barter while others go straight to the top shelf, with the 'Zebidi' variety being particularly popular for its use in traditional recipes.
Demand is so high in the Gulf emirate's market that every year hundreds of traders compete for limited stall space during the colder winter months.
The market was the brainchild of Al Rai Municipality, an industrial estate just northwest of Kuwait City, which oversees quality control and ensures the traceability of the mushroom.
"We decided to build this market in 2006 to organize the sales of this product, which was found in all kinds of corners of Kuwait," said Faisal Al Jomaa, deputy governor of Kuwait City.
This year, he said, 520 traders have applied for one of the nine-square-metre (97-square-foot) stalls. Only 123 vendors secured space.
One of them was the Iranian Abdel Ali Said, who has been buying and selling 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 (Dh244.72) per kilogram depending on the quality, according to Said.
This year, the market is reportedly awash with truffles from Libya.
"It happens every six years," said Kuwaiti trader Mohammad Al Shammari one recent day at the truffle market. "Production is cyclical. Also this year a lot comes from Tunisia".
To show how popular truffles are among Kuwaitis, Shammari pointed out that "three to four tons are imported every day and sold fresh."
But for all its love of truffles, Kuwait's commercial cultivation and harvesting of the mushroom has plummeted to nothing since Iraq invaded the emirate in 1990.
The risk of running into an unexploded mine left by the Iraqi army prevents Kuwaitis from exploring the desert in search of wild truffles.
The only remaining production is purely for personal consumption.
Kuwait's truffle crops have also been affected by the changing environment.
Unlike European truffles, which grow under the roots of trees, desert truffles appear after rain, which means that the volume and quality vary depending on the amount of rainfall and the general climate.
“Irregular rainfall, rapid urbanization and desert encroachment are all factors in the disappearance of (local) truffles,” Deputy Governor Jomaa explained.
This has only increased the desire for the delicacy, especially for the preparation of Kabsa, a spiced rice specialty common throughout the Gulf and the most popular dish in Kuwait.
The main ingredients are long grain rice, red meat and truffles, used to flavor the broth during cooking.
“Kuwait is addicted to truffles because they are rare and have such a distinct taste,” said Yousuf Mohammad Al Khalid, a young truffle enthusiast, who says he can distinguish between various sub-varieties.
Khalid said he spends up to 3,000 Kuwaiti dinars each year on white truffles, which he incorporates into his diet twice a week, including family meals on Thursdays, the last day of the work week.
Fresh truffles are only available from November to April in Kuwait, but some vendors sell a dried variation of the delicacy during the region's scorching summer months in an effort to satisfy their customers' year-round cravings.