Truffle, the prized fungus, has become an ubiquitous flavour in restaurants and cafes here. But most places do not use the real thing. Instead, they are sprinkling food with truffle oil to glam up dishes from French fries to burgers. Called the "ketchup of the bourgeoisie" by detractors, truffle oil simulates the aroma of the prized fungi.
Over the past three years, the range of truffle-flavoured dishes has continued to grow, with hawker stalls and an ice cream cafe adding truffle oil to their food. Even fast-food chain McDonald's has joined the fray. Last month, it launched the Truffle Flavoured Shaker Fries at more than 130 outlets here. The fries, which cost $3.25 a serving like a large serving of normal fries, comes with a sachet of truffle-flavoured powder.
Diners here are the first in South-east Asia to get the truffle-flavoured fries, which is available until Dec 30. A McDonald's Singapore spokesman says: "Truffle fries have become increasingly popular in Singapore and since it is available only at selected restaurants, we want to make this flavour accessible to more diners."
The chain's truffle-flavoured seasoning contains ingredients such as whey, onion powder and dextrose powder and is unlikely to contain traces of real truffles. The same can be said for most truffle oils, which are not made with real truffles. Instead, they are concocted by blending olive or sunflower oil with "truffle flavouring", which is made from the chemical compound 2,4-Dithiapentane.
Like McDonald's, food business owners are drawn by the growing popularity of truffle dishes and charge up to two times more for an additional dash of truffle oil.
One of them is Ms Jo Ann Ng, 32, owner of Bee Kee Wanton Noodles, which has stalls in Lorong Lew Lian and Market Street Food Centre. She introduced truffle versions of wonton and braised pork soft bone in July last year. She says: "Most truffle dishes start at $15 in cafes. By adding it in local dishes, more people can try how truffle tastes like. It is a cheaper alternative."
For each serving of noodles, she adds one teaspoon of white truffle oil from Urbani Tartufi into a soya sauce-based dressing before tossing it with the noodles. The truffle oil is made of sunflower seed oil infused with white truffle flavour. While a bowl of wonton noodles starts at $3, the truffle version starts at $6. The pricier bowl also contains extra fried and steamed dumplings as well as meat.
She charges a premium for using "quality truffle oil imported from Italy" and sells up to 70 bowls of truffle-scented noodles every day, adding that half her customers are aware that truffle oil is not made with real truffles. "Customers cannot expect a bowl of noodles with truffle shavings to cost $6. It would have to cost $60."
A check with some Italian restaurants reveals that prices for white truffle from Alba, Italy, can range from $12 a gram at Buona Terra in Scotts Road to $18 to $20 a gram at Forlino in One Fullerton.
Another hawker stall using truffle oil is Grazie, which serves Western food in Serangoon Gardens Food Centre. It offers truffle fries ($5.50), which is topped with parmesan cheese shavings and parsley. A serving of regular French fries costs $4.
Owner Clarence Tan, 25, uses sunflower oil with "white truffle essence". He says: "Truffle oil is seven to eight times more expensive than vegetable oil, which is used to cook regular fries."
Ice cream cafe Dessert Project in Havelock Road has white truffle ice cream in its premium selection, at $4.50 a scoop. Other flavours include melon and Parma ham, and Thai milk tea. Flavours in its classic range, including vanilla and coconut, cost $3.80 a scoop.
Co-owner Gary Soh, 29, adds truffle-flavoured olive oil into the milk-based ice cream. "Despite being less complex than other premium flavours, truffle oil is more expensive than other ingredients," he says. "We don't have to use a lot of truffle oil to make each batch of ice cream as its aroma is quite strong."
Most diners The Sunday Times speaks to are not aware that truffle oil and seasoning are not made with real truffles. Some feel deceived as they have paid more for truffle-flavoured dishes.
One of them is housewife Hazel Tan, 27, who was disappointed by McDonald's truffle-flavoured fries. She says: I will consider more carefully before going for truffle dishes next time."
But some are willing to pay a premium for the truffle flavour. Communications executive Lau Liang Tong, 26, who loves truffle-scented potato chips, bread and eggs, pays two to three times more for the "unique, comfortable scent and taste". She says: "Truffle flavour goes well with the food I like. Using truffle oil is like using vanilla essence instead of vanilla bean in cupcakes."
Agreeing with her is Mr Quah Chum Yong, 43, an executive director in a finance company. He has had the truffle wonton noodles at Bee Kee Wanton Noodle stall five times and is willing to pay up to 50 per cent more for truffle flavouring to get a unique dining experience.
He says: "Truffles are expensive and you will be kidding yourself to expect that the real ingredient is used in dishes outside of restaurants."
A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on December 6, 2015. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.