(CHINA DAILY) - When Kunming-based Italian chef Carlos Alberto Perez first smelled the unique aroma of truffle, a prized fungus, he was intoxicated.
He gushes: "It was as if I almost forgot every scent that I had smelled before. At that moment, I knew my life would be changed by it."
It is not surprising that Perez is now the general manager of the Chinese branch of Sabatino, a company dedicated to truffle products.
The truffle is high in nutrition value, but it cannot be planted in large scale and can only be found and harvested in the wild, making it very expensive - "the diamond of the kitchen", as it was called by French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
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But only recently did the truffle become popular in Chinese kitchens.
Having lived in China for seven years, Perez cannot speak fluent Chinese, but it doesn't stop his love for Chinese food.
"I started my cooking career when I was 19. When I came to China, I found the food culture is rich," Perez says.
"There are so many dishes I hadn't tasted before, and I like them very much."
Perez is determined to bring the truffle to more Chinese. "Those Chinese dishes give me inspirations to create dishes with truffles that appeal to Chinese stomach."
Perez went to search for truffles in Yunnan in 2009.
"I heard that there were truffles in Yunnan, but villagers didn't know how to eat them - some even feed pigs with truffles."
Perez still remembers with laughter the time he went to the local market with a bag of cash, describing the black truffle to the people through gestures.
He once took a 20-hour ride in a minivan to a Gaoligong mountain village seeking black truffles. The villagers scrambled to show this foreigner the truffles they picked in the mountains for a good price.
Now, Perez has business partners in every major truffle-producing area of Yunnan, purchasing 30 tons of truffles to sell to buyers at home and abroad every year.
The price of truffles has been soaring in recent years, resulting in over-exploitation.
"I saw many local people go to dig black truffles in May and June, long before the truffles are fully grown in December," Perez says. "It will not only sacrifice the quality, but also damage the yield next year." Another reason to wait: Young May truffles sell wholesale for about 200 yuan (S$40) per kilogram, while mature and fragrant December truffles can command 450 yuan (S$91) per kg.
Chinese usually eat truffles raw, or put them in soup or liquor, but Perez wants to give more Chinese a broader taste.
"That's why I invented the truffle dumpling, which mixes the traditional Chinese dumpling with the unique black truffle," says Perez, who lives in Kunming.
Sabatino's truffle dumplings can now be found on supermarket shelves in Kunming, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The process of invention has not been easy. "The current recipe of the stuffing has gone through dozens of changes," says Perez.
"Each time, I ask the employees to taste the sample, so (now) everyone hides when they see me holding a plateful of dumplings," he says.
Perez is confident about his next plan.
"The last seven years have seen truffles making forays into China's luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and supermarkets," he says.
"We will create more innovative truffle products to meet the demand."
His latest experiment is a collection of truffle cookies, which is expected to hit the market within the year. The cookies will be available in four flavors.
Perez also has an eye on the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year falls on Oct 4: He plans to promote a truffle mooncake to add a special flavor to the age-old snack of reunion.
"When I first smelled the unique aroma of a truffle, I felt intoxicated - as if I almost forgot every scent that I had smelled before. At that moment, I knew my life would be changed by it." - Chef Carlos Alberto Perez