In Khoisan mythology, there’s a tale that speaks of buried treasures that appear every few years in the shallow, sandy soils of the arid Kalahari Desert after a thunderstorm or following good seasonal rains. To the San people, these treasures are the rare eggs of the ‘lightning bird’; to the gastronomic connoisseur, they are delicacies more commonly known as Kalahari truffles or !naba.
Found nowhere else in the world, the Kalahari truffle resembles a cross between a firm mushroom and a flavoursome potato, but somehow transcends both, culminating in a delicate taste and texture that separates it from its European counterpart. This unusual treat has been cultivated by the San people for centuries and although they use it for medicinal purposes as well as a source of food, many of its ancient properties have long been forgotten, and the Kalahari truffle is now most often enjoyed as a gourmet snack.
Because they need to be exposed to a substantial amount of late rains in April and May before the frost sets in, Kalahari truffles are relatively rare. They reveal their hiding places by creating little cracks in the earth when they push up to reach the ground above them. As a result, a keen eye and dedication is needed to find these gems – and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to nab one before meerkats and other foraging animals do.
As for its composition, the raw Kalahari truffle has a texture similar to that of a moist, crumbly cheese, and its sought-after, earthy scent stays on the palate and fills the nose long after the truffle has been eaten. It can be prepared in a variety of ways, making it an incredibly versatile ingredient: when peeled and boiled, for example, it features a soft, nutty and buttery flavour and the aroma of wild mushrooms. Our favourite method is to sauté Kalahari truffles in butter with a touch of garlic, salt, black pepper and flat leaf parsley, resulting in something that resembles porcini mushrooms with a distinct, truffle aftertaste.
If you’re interested in finding your own Kalahari truffles, you’ll need to seek out a seasoned truffle hunter who knows the desert terrain. Tswalu Kalahari offers the opportunity to go on a truffle excursion as well as the chance to chat to local farm residents to learn the best-kept secrets of foraging for this distinctively South African fungus.