Only two weeks in London and already my travels seem very far away, with the only vivid memory being a big hole in my leg where I banged my shin against one of those posts designed not only to stop cars from parking, but also to make pedestrians trip over! Still, I had many wonderful and memorable moments during my months in the Middle East including one on the way to Apamea, in Syria when I spotted a group of farmers burning frikeh (green wheat).
The last time I had seen frikeh being burned in the fields was back in 1982 in Qalb Lozeh, one of the dead Byzantine cities near Aleppo. The only difference between then and now, was the setting: totally magical and ancient in Qalb Lozeh, and rather modern and charmless in Qal’at al Mudiq where we had stopped. The building where the farmers lived was modern and unfinished like many of the buildings in the Syrian countryside, and their farm equipment was scattered everywhere, bulky and rusty. The farmers were great though, dressed in a funny mix of traditional garb with modern accessories like the women’s hats, and very jolly and welcoming.
They had divided the green wheat into piles on the ground and had set a metal trestle table with a top like a grill over a large plastic sheet. They then scooped each pile of wheat onto the grille and set fire to it. As the wheat burned, the ears of wheat fell through the grill onto the sheet. The farmers then pushed the table to the side and started to fork the burned frikeh quite high up in the air, letting it fall back and in the process letting the burned chaff blow away. They then gathered the burned frikeh into baskets and again poured it from high up onto another plastic sheet, I guess to get rid of more chaff.
And here is what fresh frikeh looks like close up. It is actually delicious eaten still tender with the lovely smoky flavour even more pronounced and I could imagine making a crunchy salad with it freshly picked and just burned.
But no one uses it at this stage. They dry the hulled grain then crack it and store it for the year. In the south of Lebanon they leave the grain whole and if I am not mistaken, they don’t pick it as green. The Turkish firik seems to be a little less smoky and I think they don’t burn it in Egypt — there they use frikah to stuff pigeons, one of their rare delicacies. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, they cook frikeh as they would cook rice or burghul, using the broth from the boiled meat or chicken whcih is served with it. Some add a little rice to the frikeh to make it lighter. I prefer to cook it on its own as I love its distinctive smoky flavour, although I also like the way it is served in Bazar el-Sharq, one of my favourite restaurants in Aleppo, shaped in a timbale with half frikeh, half rice and meat and chicken on top, with a garnish of toasted nuts. Here is a beautiful picture of the dish which Ben Stechschulte took.
And here is a recipe for an Algerian Chorba Frik from La Cuisine Marocaine, Plus… de Latifa Benani-Smires. I haven’t tested it but I have cooked often from her other book and her recipes are great.
350 g lamb from the neck or shoulder, diced into small cubes
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight with a little bicarbonate of soda
2 medium onions, grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp finely ground black pepper
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 small bunch coriander, most of the stalks discarded, very finely chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup frikeh
Put the meat, chickpeas, onion and garlic in a pot. Add the saffron, pepper and oil and 2 litres water. Place over medium high heat and bring to the boil. Cover and let bubble gently for an hour or until the meat and chickpeas are done.
Add the cinnamon, coriander and tomato paste and bring back to the boil. Add the frikeh and salt to taste and let bubble for another 30 minutes, or until the frikeh is done. You need to check on the water to make sure the soup is not becoming too thick. It should not be too runny either. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve very hot.