Discovering Freekeh: Egypt’s ancient super-grain

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If you are health conscious and looking for whole-wheat pasta or brown rice in an Egyptian supermarket, you are bound to find them. They will be more expensive than regular white rice or pasta, since the brown grains sold in the Egyptian market are usually imported. The brown pasta will be from Italy and the brown rice most probably from India, especially if it is brown basmati rice.

brown rice (photo: WiseGeek)

In another aisle close by and at a quarter of the price of the imported grains will be packets of ‘fireek’ or ‘freekeh’ as it is known in Western countries as well as several  Arab countries.

‘Fireek’ or ‘Freekeh’ (photo: WordPress)

Fireek, or freekeh, is a name derived from the Arabic verb ‘to rub’. It is a dry durum wheat grain that looks like a cross between barley and rice, and is made of green wheat stalks.

Freekeh is made of green wheat stalks

Abundant in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria since time immemorial, fireek is a powerful super-grain that beats brown rice and might even push quinoa off the shelf, a whole grain much-touted in America and Europe as a nutritive superfood.

Whole grains (photo: Fit Nut Health)

Fireek contains four times the amount of fibre present in brown rice. This makes it a prime food for weight and diabetic control. Among all of the whole grains in the world, fireek comes to the fore as a rich source of vegetarian protein filled with minerals and vitamins.

Fireek, or freekeh (photo: Blogspot)

In order to produce fireek, green wheat stalks are harvested in April and May, around forty days prior to the time of harvesting the main wheat crop. These green wheat stalks are then gathered and dried in the sun for one day, before being roasted over a fire. The straw is burnt away and the wheat takes on a gold to dusky red colour.

Wheat harvest (photo: Al Bosala)

Egyptians use the grain to cook many dishes, the most famous of which is pigeons stuffed with fireek. This traditional dish is anectodally said,  sometimes with a twinkle of the eye, to “increase men’s prowess”. Fireek is also used to stuff quail, duck and chicken.

Pigeons stuffed with fireek (photo: Blogspot)

In more modern versions of fireek dishes, it can be cooked and sprinkled in salads or added to sweet parfaits of yogurt and fruit.

Sweet freekeh (photo: SBS)

Here are two traditional ways to cook and eat fireek.

But before starting, always make sure to soak the fireek in water for 1-2 hours.

Soak the fireek in water for 1-2 hours

Fireek with meat

A recipe from a 13th century Abbasid cookbook describes a dish in which meat is fried in oil and then braised with water, salt and cinnamon bark.

Fireek and a sprinkle of dried coriander is added to the simmering meat until the broth is absorbed and the fireek done.

The fireek and meat are then served with a sprinkle of cumin and cinnamon.

Fireek with meat

Vegetarian Fireek

In a medium pot, sauté a regular onion along with a spring onion until golden.

Keeping the fire moderate, add one cup of fireek to the onions and stir.

Add 2 cups of hot stock to the mixture.

In a medium pot sauté an onion and a spring onion until golden (photo: Join in the Harvest)

Add tomato paste, bay leaf, cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper to taste.

Leave to simmer until the broth is absorbed and the fireek is done.

Fireek