Freekeh: The Latest Ancient Grain


Photo by Nomi Abeliovich

To try freekeh, click here for a recipe that combines it with sweet potato, preserved lemon, and pumpkin seeds.

After decades of looking to the West for inspiration and some answers, the culinary soul-searchers hunting for an "Israeli cuisine" have turned their gaze much closer to home.

Dating back to ancient times, freekeh is roasted or smoked green wheat typical to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and although this local grain is even mentioned in biblical texts, it has entered the Israeli kitchen only recently. Part of traditional Arab cuisine, it emerged out of a shared terroir but went unnoticed for decades—until it finally caught the attention of Israeli chefs and food writers looking for a culinary identity based on local ingredients.

Unique flavor and beneficial properties aside, freekeh is a symbol of Israel's growing awareness of local food traditions.

Appearing in many regional meat and vegetable dishes, soups, and stews, freekeh (pronounced "free-kah") has a characteristic smoked aroma and a toasted, mildly sweet flavor. It contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than most grains, and up to four times the fiber content of brown rice, though it has hardly any gluten, since it is harvested before its protein develops.

The freekeh harvest takes place around April and May, about six weeks before the regular wheat harvest begins. Laborers gather it in bunches and dry it in the sun for 24 hours before placing it over an open fire for several minutes of roasting, during which the straw and chaff burn and the wheat obtains a uniform dark gold color. Separated from the chaff, the grain is then either ground or kept whole. (The name freekeh is derived from the Arabic root faraka, which means "rubbing," referring to the removal of the bran.) After a drying period of around 45 days, the freekeh is packed and sold.

After making its debut several years ago at high-end restaurants as a novel ingredient, freekeh made a successful entrance to the Israeli kitchen table via several appearances in cooking shows, food magazines, trendy specialty food shops, and health food retailers, where, at one point, it was even found priced as much as 1000 percent higher than its equivalent at Jerusalem's Muslim quarter market. These days freekeh can be found on some supermarket shelves, even in the US. It doesn't get more mainstream than that.

Unique flavor and beneficial properties aside, freekeh is mainly a symbol of Israel's growing awareness of local food traditions, customs, and ingredients. It is also a reminder of how much more we need to look at the gastronomic treasures we share with our neighbors.