Truffle lovers rejoice! Thailand is officially on the world truffle map following the discovery of tuber magnatum, or white truffles, found growing in the forests of Chiang Mai Province.
If you’re not a food connoisseur, chances are you might not even know what a truffle is. We’re not talking here about those chocolatey things you eat for dessert. These are the real deal truffles, the ones that cost a fortune and are prized by foodies around the world. With the launch of the Michelin Bangkok guide in late 2017, Thailand has really become a world culinary destination, and plenty of truffles are making inroads onto fine dining menus. But today, the Land of Smiles is taking it even one step further, with not only truffle restaurants launching in Bangkok, but with the startling discovery of tuber magnatum, the prized white truffle itself, actually growing in a forest in northern Thailand. This discovery puts Thailand on the world truffle map, challenging the notion that truffles can’t grow in tropical soil.
Truffle is the common name given to a hypogeous fungus that belongs to the tuber genus. They grow underground, primarily near the roots of oak and elm trees, and look rather like a warted, gnarled piece of ginger or even potato. Hidden under the soil, truffles are extremely hard to find. Originally, pigs were trained to “hunt” for them, as they had a superior sense of smell and as the truffle actually smells like male testosterone to the lady swine! However, pigs tended to eat the truffles once they found them, and thus they’ve subsequently been replaced by trained dogs to sniff out the prized tubers. The dogs are trained from when they are puppies to recognise the musky scent of the tubers, and then lead the truffle hunters to the right spots from where the digging begins.
Given the hard work involved, one can see why truffles are so pricey. Black truffles sell for up to USD3,500 for one kilogramme, while the famous white truffles (which until now were only found around Alba in the Piedmont region in Italy) go for almost double that. All this spells good news for potential Thai truffle farming, as researchers from Chiang Mai University found a truffle they’ve named tuber thailanddicum, as well as the tuber magnatum, which is the same as Alba’s favourite fungi.
Back in Bangkok, leave the digging to the dogs and make a beeline for Urbani, the city’s first true truffle restaurant. Urbani Truffle Bar and Restaurant, perched up on the 39th floor of Sathorn Square building and looking out at the dazzling cityscape, serves up five-course tasting menus showing off the fragrant imported truffles. The finest quality meats and seafood are used here, from Japanese Kobe beef to imported Spanish sea bass, halibut, or Australian tenderloin, all beautifully presented on creative plates in which the truffles have been grated, topped, or woven into. Come here during the fall, the season of the rare white truffle (which can’t be frozen, and needs to be eaten with a few weeks of being unearthed), and dig into a homemade tagliatelle carbonara, served with sous vide egg yolk, bacon, and white truffle slices, whose flavours are released by the heat of the pasta, tasting heavenly enough to justify their Italian nickname of the “truffle of the white Madonna.”
It’s not only Urbani serving up the darlings of the culinary world. Some of the city’s best Italian restaurants get into the act, with chefs turning out special truffle menus and creative dishes utilising Alba’s finest. Vesper puts two grams of Alba truffles onto tagliolini or risotto, and at Il Fumo, white truffles get shaved onto Australian Wagyu and Hokkaido scallops and are paired with wines straight from Piedmont.
At La Bottega di Luca, founded by master Italian chef Luca Appino, you can start off with a baked egg and parmesan cream topped with truffles, then eat your truffle-laced angel hair pasta, and even finish off the meal with panna cotta ice cream that has truffles in it!
Another one of the city’s most elegant Italian dining venues, Sorrento flies in fresh truffles twice a week during truffle season, and then offer any dish on the menu with the fungi shaved on top of it. Their regular menu even features a truffle soup, penne ox tongue with truffle sauce, and hazelnut ice cream with truffles to close.
Naturally, with the discovery of the Chiang Mai truffles, you soon might be seeing far more simple and local vendors getting into the act. Just imagine the possibilities - having your khao man gai (Hainanese chicken rice) topped with truffles or even your ubiquitous grapao gai kai dao (stir-fried chicken with holy basil) topped not only with an egg, but with Alba truffle, or should we say, a tuber thailanddicum.
At any rate, aficionados don’t have to fly to Turin or Genoa anymore to enjoy the real deal, as just a short jaunt to Chiang Mai or Bangkok will get you in on the culinary scene’s equivalent of gold.
Where to enjoy truffles in Bangkok
Urbani Truffle Bar and Restaurant
La Bottega di Luca