Chefs call white truffles “The Diamond of the Kitchen” but actually these fragrant fungi are not white, they are pale brown in color, with white marbling.

Truffles used to be exclusively used in Western cuisine. Not anymore. Now this fragrant fungi is being used by creative chefs in every kind of cuisine, including Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern.

FOODSERVICE APME is the leading provider of specialist and gourmet ingredients to food professionals around Asia and the Middle East. Their experts report booming interest in truffles and truffle oil. In fact, now you’ll find truffles and fragrant truffle oil used in Korean Barbeque, Chinese dim sum, Wagyu beef burgers – and so much more.

"Onion Rings and Truffle Burger" by kurmanstaff under CC BY 2.0

What’s the culinary history of truffles?

Truffles have always been special. Thousands of years ago, the famous Greek scholar Plutarch called truffles “Children of Thunder”, because he thought they grew when lightning hit the ground.

During the Renaissance era in Europe, truffles started to become used in food – but only for the wealthy. White truffles were on the menu at the palace of King Francis I of France. But it was not until the 17th century that Western cuisines fell in love with truffles – and especially French and Italian cuisines.

What dishes suit truffles?

Chefs love truffles because a few thin slices of fresh truffle gives a luxury gourmet flavor and fragrance to dishes containing meat or eggs. Starches such as pasta, noodles, rice or potato also benefit.

Truffle scent is especially successful in robust dishes like noodles with meat, or dishes with root vegetables - especially vegetables that are traditionally harvested in the Fall or Autumn. For example, truffle oil can be sprinkled on edamame beans, used in mushroom pate, or a potato and cheese gratin.

Why are truffles so expensive?

Fresh truffles are expensive for several reasons. The first reason is that gourmet white truffles only grow wild. This natural fungus grows underground in cool forests. The fungi cannot be farmed because it is fussy about soil, trees, and weather. Conditions must be perfect or it just does not grow.

Hunters search for truffles growing wild in forests, like this one in Italy.
Credit: "The Paradise of the Truffle Searcher - Dino Olivieri" by ! / dino olivieri /  licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where do white truffles come from?

Truffles are a mystery. The fungus grows partly underground, near the roots of old trees. To find them, hunters use specially trained animals like dogs, to sniff out the scent. When the hunters find a truffle, they dig it out of the ground by hand, and wrap it in straw or white cloth. Any damage lowers the value.

Credit: "truffle" by Scott Darbey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Truffle hunters go out at dawn to keep their hunting locations secret. They may only share the locations with their family – good locations are often passed down from father to son.

Truffle hunters can only search in Autumn, when the truffles are ripe and fragrant. The season is usually only September to December. This seasonality is why truffles were traditionally paired with Autumn ingredients like root vegetables, game meat, venison and beef.  

Credit: "Beef tenderloin with truffle oil potato cake with mushrooms" licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The difficulty of sourcing white or black truffles means fresh truffles will never be cheap. And to be honest, that is also part of their appeal! Restaurant customers know truffles are rare, seasonal and a special treat.

Truffle Oil - the pros and cons for food service

Many chefs prefer to use truffle oil, or truffles packed in oil. This is produced when high-quality olive oil is infused with slices of black or white truffles. This oil is useful for professional kitchens because it lasts much longer than fresh truffles.

It’s also cost-effective because every drop of oil retains that amazing truffle scent and taste. Just a few drops of truffle oil can transform fine-dining dishes such as steak. The oil can also be sprinkled over snacks like dim sum to elevate them into a true gourmet treat.

Truffles can be used to scent oil, to add luxury to any cuisine. Credit: "Olive Oil" by Sikachu! is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The flavor of truffle oil goes exceptionally well with red wine. So truffle oil is also being used in more bar menus and specialty menus at boutique wineries. In casual food service establishments, a few drops of truffle oil are a cost-effective investment because they transform simple dishes like french fries or noodles into a gourmet eating experience.

Truffle oil elevates snacks like french fries into a gourmet treat.
Credit "Truffle & Parmesan Frites at Giant Steps Winery" by avlxyz, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Truffle oil is suitable for Vegan and Vegetarian dishes

White truffles have significant amounts of protein and very high amounts of antioxidants, which makes them a nutritious food. Truffle is a fungi, so vegan and vegetarian dishes can also use truffle oil. It’s great on vegetarian dishes based on root vegetables, such as potatoes, but it also works for vegetarian dim sum, and plant-based foods.

Credit: "Vegan Seitan Chicken with Tempeh and Grapes with Truffle Oil Crostini" by Vegan Feast Catering is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Does the producer or supplier matter?

Finally, a word about quality. Different types of fungi related to truffles grow naturally all over the world. You can find these fungi growing in the deserts outside Baghdad in Iraq and in the forests above Chiang Mai in Thailand. But these fungi are not as fragrant or tasty as the truffles from Europe. It might be the species of fungi, or the weather, or the rainfall or the different tree roots. No one knows the exact reasons.

A market in Italy selling gourmet ingredients, including seasonal truffles. Credit: "Food market in Rome" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Some enterprising farmers are also trying to grow truffles commercially in the USA and in the cooler parts of Australia… but the results are not consistent. Some years the truffles just don’t grow. Or the fragrance is not as good. Again, no-one is sure why.

If you are buying truffle oil, the actual base also needs to be good quality, to “hold” the fragrance. Originally, truffle oil was high-quality olive oil infused with black or white truffles, but today, some is made synthetically with chemical ingredients like 2,4-dithiapentane, an aromatic molecule that smells a bit like truffles. Some people love the intense fragrance of this synthetic truffle oil. Others find it overpowering.

The bottom line is this: for food professionals, it’s best to source truffles or truffle oil from a reputable source. FOODSERVICE APME only source gourmet truffles and truffle oil from reputable suppliers, in Europe. It’s the only way to guarantee quality.

Credit: "•Edamame Dumplings with Truffle Oil•" by debbietingzon is licensed under CC BY 2.0