'The poor man's meat': Truffle season in Iraq sees citizens flock to the desert

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In recent weeks, Iraqis have been flocking to the desert hills and valleys of the north, west and centre of the country, to dig for truffles (kama' in Arabic, or chimaa' as they are known in the Iraqi dialect). Iraq is witnessing a bumper crop this year following heavy rainfall over the past two months, with rainfall - particularly thunderstorms - playing a critical role in the growth of truffles.

Some call truffles the "poor man's meat" and it is highly sought after due to its rich nutritious content and unique taste.

Convoys of cars can be seen snaking their way out of Iraq's urban towns and cities as groups of friends and families travel into the rural, desert areas where truffles are known to grow – in a revival of an age-old tradition that used to occur after every rainy season.

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Aside from truffle hunting, Iraqis enjoy the trips out in the countryside, especially after the heavy rains which leave these far-flung areas coated in lush greenery and the air fresh.

People bring food with them, and tents for the nights, and some even bring equipment for hunting rabbits, deer, and birds which populate Iraq's valleys and plains.

"Some call truffles the 'poor man's meat' and it is highly sought after due to its rich nutritious content and unique taste"

Due to Iraq's security situation, and the threats of terrorism across the country over the last decade, numbers of truffle hunters had dwindled.

In recent years, there have been sporadic attacks on truffle hunters by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, with some kidnapped and held to ransom and others murdered. Truffle hunters have also been increasingly targeted in Syria. However, in Iraq, the situation has improved in the last few years, and people are tentatively returning in larger numbers to the seasonal activity.

In Iraq, truffles go by many names, depending on the region. Some call it faakiha as-samaa' ('fruit of the sky') and some use the name ibn al-baraq ('son of lightning') – both names derive from its abundance following the rainy seasons of autumn and winter in which thunderstorms are frequent. Its prevalence varies from one region to the next, according to the amount of rainfall.

Ghanim Al-Jumaily told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, that "hundreds of citizens go every year around this time to the Anbar desert to search for truffles, to eat or to sell – as they can be sold for more than $15 per kilogramme."

He explains that "collecting truffles has become a way to make a living for those with no livelihood, as they are available across the sandy desert areas every time there is heavy rainfall."

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Al-Jumaili travels with his children to collect the truffles "God has provided" and he describes the journey as fun, although "not free of risks – people can get lost if they don’t have GPS devices or smart phones." In addition to this, he mentions that some areas are still littered with landmines, and other lethal war debris.

Farmer Bakr Al-Hadithi said: "Over the last two years, truffles had disappeared due to the lack of thunderstorms, but this year there is a bumper crop. I am collecting between 15 and 20kg every day, and selling them […] for more than $15 per kilo. The most common types of truffles that grow in Iraq are Zubaidi, Khalasi, Aswad (black), and Ahrak, and huge numbers of Iraqis are coming to the Anbar desert right now to dig for them."

Al-Hadithi adds: "Most of those who come to the desert to hunt for truffles are from the countryside, people who depend on the land to provide them with what they need to make a living, which is a point of worry for most Iraqis." However, some city-dwellers also travel into the desert to go truffle hunting for enjoyment, he adds.

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Agricultural engineer Adel Al-Dulaimi explains that truffle season "begins in mid-January and continues until the second half of April." The best kind is found in hilly areas, and is red in colour, he adds, "while truffles in sandy areas are closer to white, and more problematic for sand getting into the cracks."

"Selling truffles at this time is an essential financial resource for many," explains Al-Dulaimi, "and many Iraqis purchase them in bulk because of their delicious taste." Many also use truffles for health reasons, as they possess many health benefits, containing a lot of protein, antioxidants, and vitamins, he adds.

Seller Rabih Muhammed, says the truffle markets are experiencing a boom today as people are eager to stock up on the sought-after delicacy.

He says the sellers generally set up truffle markets on pavements and the side of main roads rather than in the popular markets, where goods are sold cheaply and the high price of truffles puts them out of reach of the customers who frequent those markets, most of whom have low incomes.

"However, truffles have their lovers, who will go to wherever they are to get hold of them," says Rabih.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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