Three days before Fuad Nirabie met me at his restaurant, Damas (French for Damascus), he was finishing a buying trip 100 kilometres from the Syrian capital. For two weeks, he bounced between Lebanon and Turkey with his wife and son, sourcing spices, sweets, antiques and tiles near the northern border of Lebanon – neither too far, nor close enough, to his roots in Homs, Syria. Before the civil war began in 2011, the Alberta-born, Homs-raised chef sourced staples directly from Syria. It was a short-lived promise to no one but himself to replicate the tastes he left behind when he returned to Canada for university. But the uprisings started within months of Nirabie opening Damas, so these buying trips are the way it has to be.
On the last day of his excursion in Tripoli, Lebanon, he happened upon a delicacy he had never seen sold outside Syria before, let alone in such abundance: desert truffles, called kamaa. The fist-sized fungi are mistaken for potatoes by the most unfortunate, but Nirabie immediately recognized them from his childhood, accompanying his merchant grandfather to Homs’ 400-year-old souk, a heritage site obliterated in just three years by civil war. Because kamaa need winter thunderstorms to crack open the desert and fill it with nitrogen-rich rain, vendors can go years without seeing them – and that’s before war made truffle hunting too dangerous – but suddenly, they were everywhere.