Pharaoh was having nightmares.
He dreamed horribly of seven diseased wheat sheaves and seven skinny cows devouring healthy wheat and fat cattle. Not being one to suffer in silence, he let the whole palace know what sleepless nights he was having. His viziers couldn’t explain the dreams. His magicians consulted the oracles, but the oracles were silent. Pharaoh grew more and more irritable. “Why are my servants so useless?” he shouted. The palace was in an uproar, with everyone running around blaming each other and nothing getting done.
Pharoah’s butler dared to address Pharaoh, who sat dozing on his throne. The butler had been in jail two years before, for handing Pharaoh a cup of wine with a fly in it. His jail mates had been a baker and a young Jewish man, Joseph. The butler and the baker had both had vivid dreams, which Joseph interpreted correctly.
“It’s uncanny,” said the butler. “We told this Jew our dreams and he predicted exactly what would happen to each of us: I got my job back here and the baker… well, the baker wasn’t so lucky. May I suggest that this Joseph be brought forth to interpret Your Majesty’s dreams?”
Pharaoh opened bleary eyes and regarded the butler. “Get him,” he said. At which servants ran and fetched Joseph out of jail.
Bathed, shaved and dressed in fresh clothes, Joseph stood in front of Pharaoh and listened to his complaint. He understood that Pharaoh’s dreams were prophetic. Egypt was about to enter a cycle of seven abundant years, followed by seven years of failed crops and famine. Pharaoh was convinced. But how to get Egypt through the oncoming hungry times?
Joseph advised Pharaoh to separate a fifth of the wheat harvest every year, storing it up against the famine to come. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph governor of the country. And Joseph set to work, storing grain in immense silos; so much grain, it was impossible to measure.
But. Here’s a problem not discussed in the Bible, where you doubtless know this story comes from. Grain stored for long periods is likely to go bad. How did Joseph preserve those tons of grain against damage from insects, mice, mold?
I mentioned this to chef and food historian Moshe Basson, of the Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem, one afternoon when we were sitting outside his restaurant and chatting. Chef Basson’s has studied and cooked Biblical food for many years. He said he thinks Joseph saved Egypt from famine with freekeh.
Some call it freekeh, some call it freeki. No matter how you pronounce it, it’s smoked green wheat, wheat that’s harvested while still immature and then smoked. It was probably already a well-known method of preserving wheat by Biblical times. Here’s Moshe Basson’s freekeh as served in Eucalyptus.
Wheat is vulnerable to many destructive forces: rain out of season, which makes the damp crop go moldy; or an invasion of locusts in the field; or a crop disease, or moths.
To ensure the safety of at least part of the wheat crop, chosen fields are harvested as soon as the grains are full on the stalk, but still soft and green. The wheat, on its stalks, is heaped up out and left in the field to dry in the sun several days. Then the farmer builds a bonfire and roasts the wheat briefly, stalk and all. The straw chars, but the kernels’ high moisture content prevents them from burning.
When the wheat is pulled out of the fire, all mice and insects have fled. No insect eggs left on the grain will hatch, having been destroyed. The wheat is rubbed through sieves to free it of the chaff. Then it’s milled to a coarse texture like bulgur. Stored in air-tight conditions, freekeh keeps a long time.
Nowadays in Israel, it’s the Arab and Druze farmers who make it. The method is the same as in ancient times, except that a combine harvester cuts the wheat down instead of men with scythes.
It’s a versatile grain with a nutty, smoky flavor. Here in the Middle East, people like to stuff chicken and vegetables with it. Freekeh also makes delicious salads, especially when combined with fruit like dried cranberries or chopped dried apricots. Or you can substitute freekeh for plain bulgur in a good, herby tabbuleh. Another way to eat freekeh is substituting it for rice in majadra.
I usually serve freekeh as a hearty, savory side dish, just plain, with garlic. But sometimes it’s the main dish, with diced steamed sweet potatoes or toasted walnuts – or both – gently stirred in. I’ve also cooked freekeh in lots of water and milk, like oatmeal, and served it sweet for breakfast.
My local freekeh needs to cook for an hour or a little longer, but I’ve seen recipes instructing to cook only 20 minutes. I’d say to cook according to package instructions. Here in Israel, there are no package instructions, because there’s no package. Freekeh is scooped out from a sack and weighed into plain plastic bags.
I’ve only ever found freekeh in open-air markets, and even then, not every vendor dealing in grains has it. White rice has mostly replaced it. In my local shuk, there’s only one vendor who carries it. It’s a pity because freekeh is highly nutritious and tasty. But in the States, you can order freekeh online if your nearest Middle Eastern store doesn’t carry it.
This is part one of a series on freekeh. Click here for part two, my basic freekeh recipe.