Ancient grains are now basking in the limelight — fueled by several forces that have created a perfect storm for the growing popularity of these hot “new” grains, including the demand for whole grains, plant-based entrees and gluten-free options. Quinoa seems to be the current darling with amaranth, buckwheat, kamut, millet, sorghum and teff all competing for attention.
My new favorite is Freekeh. I recently discovered this grain (pronounced “free-kah”) and I’m a huge fan. Dating back to ancient times (even mentioned in biblical texts), freekeh is a roasted green wheat that has a unique smoky aroma and a nutty, toasted taste.
Freekeh is native of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In fact, my Lebanese mother-in-law told me she remembered seeing the large puffs of smoke in the horizon when fields of the wheat were being burned. Yes, the grain is burned. That’s what makes it so unique.
The wheat is harvested young (still considered “green” ) when the grains are soft and full of moisture. Then it’s dried in the sun before being placed over an open fire for several minutes of roasting — during which the straw and chaff burn and the wheat obtains a dark gold color. The grains are then polished and cracked. You can find more information about the history of freekeh and how its made at Slow Food in Lebanon and CliffordAWright.com. The name freekeh is derived from the Arabic word al-freek, which means “what is rubbed” referring to the rubbing of the wheat grains to rid them of their shells.
Freekeh is a smoky cousin to bulgur wheat, which I also frequently use to make savory pilafs and other side dishes. It’s like a cross between brown rice and barley. I found boxes of freekeh at the Middle Eastern markets in Chicago. But now Trader Joe’s carries packets of a pre-cooked variety called Greenwheat Freekeh, and I’m sure it will be appearing soon on other supermarket shelves. Some natural foods stores may also carry it.
The Village Voice thinks freekeh may be the next big grain. Chef Jamie Oliver calls freekeh his new favorite superfood. And it was mentioned in a New York Times review of the East Village restaurant Northern Spy Food Company. Chef Nathan Foot makes a freekeh risotto that’s described as a “hippie mac-and-cheese.” Love that.
I adore the taste of freekeh, but I also love its nutrition profile. This is a high-fiber, high-protein grain that is more nutrient-rich compared to many other grains. There’s something about being harvested while the durum wheat is still young that makes it such a nutrient powerhouse. Take a look at the nutrition information of freekah (including how it stacks up to other grains), or here’s the nutrition information for the Trader Joe’s Greenwheat Freekah. In some articles you’ll see freekeh getting credit for being gluten-free, but that’s not the case. This is a wheat product, and wheat is the major source of gluten in our diets. However, there’s some evidence that because the grain was harvested young, the gluten may not be fully developed. And the roasting process may be a factor too. But it’s unsure if freekeh is safe for people with celiac, or those following a gluten-free diet.
Freekeh can used in place of couscous or rice, added into soups and casseroles, or even eaten like a hot cereal for breakfast. In Lebanon, it’s often served topped with chicken and toasted pine nuts. You can find a lot of different recipes at Greenwheat Freekah, a major distributor of the ancient grain in Australia. Or check out some of these other fantastic-looking freekeh recipes:
Freekeh Salad with Sweet Potato and Preserved Lemon
Mediterranean Polenta with Freekeh
Roasted Green Wheat with Chicken (Freekeh ma’djej)
Freekeh with Chicken
Green Freekah Vegetable Pilaf
MimiCooks features an authentic Lebanese recipe with freekeh, along with this great instructional video:
The version of freekeh I made recently included chickpeas and toasted pine nuts with lots of cumin and seven spices, a wonderful Lebanese spice mixture.
I encourage you to check out freekeh, and let me know what you think!