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Tuesday 19 October 2021
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Freekeh : the green gem of the Middle East

Contributing writer: Camille CESBRON, Food Anthropologist

The Food Heritage Foundation is engaged in putting forward the different Mouneh productions in Lebanon, highlighting our local resources, and our rich local knowledge. By producing our own Mouneh or/and supporting those who make it, we can take the control of our food system and make a difference.

Freekeh ready to be harvested – West Bekaa

Freekeh (or frika meaning “rubbing” in Arabic) is often known as one of the world oldest domesticated crops.  Originally from the Middle East, this green durum wheat is harvested in spring around the region when the grain is still tender, milky, and bigger than the mature wheat. It holds its unique smoky flavour from a two-step process: Traditionally, wheat is first burnt on the ground, hence resulting in the smoked kernel, and then left to dry in the sun for few days to finish the dehydrating process and kill remaining germs and bacteria – as per traditional believes. Nowadays, gas fuelled machines have been developed and are in use for these processes, ensuring high quality of the end product and abiding by food safety standards.

Roasting freekeh the traditional way, on the ground ©Rana Tanissa

There are a lot of legends around freekeh. For example, it is said to have been first « discovered » when a thunderstorm struck a bunch of wild wheat. Another legend says that it was used when villages in fear of invasion by the enemies, would burn their land, in order to stock up the cereals. In Ottoman times, it said that people used to collect wheat early to prevent being taxed wheat by the authorities. These defence mechanisms link freekeh with the very notion of survival, reminding us that the age of abundance in only a fraction of Human History.

The freekeh roaster machine resulting in high quality kernels

If we look at the ancient texts, freekeh was already mentioned by the Babylonians (+/- 2000 BC. to 565 BC.). From Mesopotamia where freekeh was called back then “butumtu, to the Medieval era, between the 10th and the 14th century, when numerous cookbooks were written and freekeh was widely used (refer to the translations by Nawal Nasrallah of the Iraqi and Egyptian cuisines). In the 10th century, in vibrant Abbasid Baghdad (750 à 1258 AD.), Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq mentions in his book “Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ” a porridge (Hareessah) recipe made with freekeh (qamh akhdar farik, فريك ) to accompany meat dishes. Evidence of the Arabic influence in the Mediterranean, freekeh is present as far as Andalusia. In the 13th century, Ibn Razin at-Tugibi (1227-1293) from Murcie, Spain described the process of harvesting, roasting and storing freekeh in his cookbook.

Nowadays, only 2% of the durum wheat production in Middle East, is reserved for freekeh. A UNDP report from 2020 highlights the import dependency of Lebanon on freekeh: “The majority of freekeh quantity sold in Lebanon is imported mainly from Syria and other countries such as Egypt and Turkey, representing about 66% of the total market. » Our local production, mainly handled by small farmers and cooperatives is too costly and our production and storage tools too obsolete to even fill our domestic needs. Yet in the recent years, freekeh has found its way to foreign markets such as Europe or the US, because of its incredible health benefits. Consumed whole or cracked, this cereal can be used as the base for meat dish or even desserts like “Freekeh with Ashta”.

Freekeh soup served with a dash of lemon juice

To support local production, you can order your freekeh from local producers and cooperatives around Lebanon :

Bekaa 

Kamel el-Loz Club, West Bekaa : 03875762

Arsal Cooperative : 03110802

South Lebanon 

Al Imad Cooperative : 070927069 / 081700426

Joud Al Ared Cooperative : 070646895 / 03304628

References

https://www.undp.org/content/dam/lebanon/docs/2020/Publications/Freekeh-in-Lebanon-Value-Chain-Assessment-UNDP-LHSP.pdf

Bottéro, J. (1995). Mesopotomian culinary texts, University Park ; Eisenbrauns

Nasrallah, N. (2007). Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens : Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, Leyde : Brills Publishers.




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