Freekeh, freekeh, freekeh!

16 November, 2020

freekeh 2500pix.jpg

Chef Fadi Kattan

Some peo­ple say I am mad about freekeh, that fan­tas­tic earthy, intense grain. The world has been tak­en by the super grain trend and freekeh fig­ures some­where high up among the most adored ones.

But what is freekeh? Ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly the name comes from the ara­bic yofrok, the action of rub­bing in between your hands. The green durum wheat grain is har­vest­ed while still young and moist, sun­dried for a day or two and then piled up and set on fire in an impres­sive­ly craft­ed way, tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the wind, the place­ment and mas­ter­ing the flames so as to char the grains but not burn them. The result is heaps of charred wheat that then go through the process of being rubbed in order to remove the burnt shells by rub­bing vig­or­ous­ly the grain in between one’s palms or by thrashing.

…from freekeh to Fadi's risotto…

The sto­ry behind freekeh is that in 2300 B.C, a nation in our region was prepar­ing to be attacked by a neigh­bor­ing aggres­sor and picked their wheat green and young. They stored it in the hope that the town would resist the aggres­sor. That failed dra­mat­i­cal­ly and the aggres­sors burned down the stor­age build­ings. The sur­vivors, not want­i­ng to let their wheat go to waste, end­ed up rub­bing off the burnt shells. They cooked the wheat and thus freekeh came into our cuisine! 

Many sto­ries of food come from aggres­sions and appro­pri­a­tions and freekeh start­ed 4,300 years ago with one and today lives anoth­er one. In the pur­suit of food prove­nance, ori­gin and his­to­ry, many try to claim the ori­gin of freekeh which leads to incon­gru­ous sit­u­a­tions. We are see­ing a pletho­ra of Israeli chefs claim­ing freekeh as theirs or dif­fus­ing its ori­gin by not claim­ing any prove­nance. Upon ask­ing an old­er Pales­tin­ian woman in the Jenin area while she was rub­bing the freekeh what she thought of that, she smiled and said: “My son, I have learned this craft from my grand­moth­er, who learned it from her grand­moth­er, who was born well before the end of the Ottoman Empire’s rule.”

I per­son­al­ly have no prob­lem with any­one cook­ing freekeh and on the con­trary encour­age every­one to try this won­der­ful grain, but expect that its prove­nance be hon­ored and that the craft of those farm­ers be respect­ed and ele­vat­ed. The same goes for much of Pales­tin­ian prod­uct which has been culi­nar­al­ly appro­pri­at­ed. From Freekeh to zaatar and lebaneh and many oth­ers, the craft of won­der­ful arti­sans, passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, is in today’s world being for­got­ten and its beau­ty stolen rather than being hon­ored for gift­ing us these deli­cious victuals. 

Freekeh is being used as a sta­ple all along the Mediter­ranean from the deli­cious Hamam bil-ferik (pigeons stuffed with freekeh) in Egypt to the Tunisian Shorbat farik bil mukh (bone mar­row soup with freekeh), from the sump­tu­ous Alep­po Tat­beekah (freekeh pilaf cov­ered with white rice and ground lamb meat) to the intense Shorbat freekeh done in Sabastyia by my friend Abu Mohammad. 

I have had much fun with freekeh, very sel­dom using rice in my Faw­da restau­rant kitchen. From tra­di­tion­al freekeh pilafs to a freekeh risot­to that has become a favorite among my guests to new recipes for an upcom­ing Lon­don food ven­ture, freekeh is always there in my cooking.

Chef Fadi Kattan at his restaurant Fawda in Bethlehem.

Freekeh pro­vokes a love or hate rela­tion­ship, pro­vokes dis­cus­sions of do you wash freekeh or not? My younger broth­er Karim hates freekeh while my sis­ter Muna loves my freekeh risot­to. Many old­er Pales­tin­ian women from whom I learn a lot of cook­ing tips have their hair rise when I say that I don’t wash the freekeh before cook­ing it. I’ll leave you with my recipe for freekeh risot­to and hope that you’ll be as crazy about it as Muna. 

Sa7tayn and bon appétit!

First the veg­etable broth:

 Start with veg­etable and herb scraps—thyme, oregano, car­rot tops and ends, onion tops, pars­ley stems, zaatar leaves, toma­to cores, cel­ery bits—and water. Put all the veg­etable and herbs in a pot, cov­er with water, boil for 45 min­utes. When done strain and reserve the quan­ti­ty need­ed. The rest can go into pots in the fridge or freezer.

Ingre­di­ents for the Freekeh Risotto: 

6 cups veg­etable & herb broth
A few leaves of sage
1 table­spoon saf­fron threads
3 table­spoons olive oil
2 small yel­low onions minced
Pinch of ground car­damom and pinch of ground gin­ger
2 cups freekeh (rinsed)
1 cup Tay­beh Sauvi­gnon Blanc (if not avail­able, use a good qual­i­ty crispy, high acid­i­ty white wine)
½ cup Bal­a­di Cheese (you may sub­sti­tute it with a soft, creamy coun­try goat cheese)
1 table­spoon olive oil
Coarse Dead Sea Salt (or coarse Himalayan pink salt if not avail­able) and fresh­ly ground white pepper

Cook­ing Instructions: 

1.     Put the veg­etable broth, the sage leaves and the crushed saf­fron threads in a pot and heat on medi­um heat. 

2.      In a large pot, heat the olive oil, and then the onions. Cook until soft. Add the car­damom and ginger.

3.      Add the freekeh. You need to rinse the freekeh before­hand and remove the small stones.

4.     Stir the freekeh in the olive oil and onion mix for 3 to 4 minutes.

5.     Add the Sauvi­gnon Blanc wine. Cook until the wine has evaporated.

6.     Add ½ cup warm broth. Cook while stir­ring until absorbed. 

7.     Con­tin­ue adding ½ cup broth at a time and stir­ring until evaporated.

8.     When the freekeh is cooked and creamy, remove from the heat, stir in the olive oil, Bal­a­di cheese and salt and pep­per to taste.

BethlehemFadi KattanfreekehPalestinian cuisine

Franco-Palestinian chef and hotelier Fadi Kattan has become the voice of modern Palestinian cuisine. Hailing from a Bethlehemite family that has on the maternal side cultivated a francophone culture and on the paternal side, a British culture with passages in India, Japan and the Sudan, Fadi’s cuisine and savoir-faire combine worldly influences, a desire for perfection and a passion for the local terroir.