In modern gastronomy there is a constant search for new elements: flavors, ingredients, techniques, ways of serving and new ideas all around. The research always comes for the sake of innovation and the will to create and entertain our palate and mind. Chefs and their teams keep their mind busy 24/7 looking to develop their cuisine. They travel far to get to the unknown and bring it to their kitchens, they test new cooking methods to achieve new tastes, and brainstorm often of how to amaze their diners.
Among all the research for the new and unfamiliar the search for ingredients is unique because it often combines innovation and tradition. It is because new ingredients are not something that pops up from a new research or idea. They have to exist already and usually they are to be found in indigenous communities where they have been used for hundreds or thousands of years – and they usually carry behind them a special story to tell.
As a chef, finding a new ingredient to use in my kitchen is like finding a small treasure. It is exciting like when a child gets a new toy; it makes your imagination immediately go on, thinking of how you are going to cook it and which other ingredients you are going to combine it with. Here in the Mediterranean new ingredients are hard to find mostly because there are not many indigenous communities, and the fact that for many years the area has been very poor and went through quite a lot of wars and population changes. I was very happy, therefore, to get to know the freekeh, a very traditional product that is mentioned in the bible and has been kept in use in the traditional, local cuisine since then. It can be found in the cuisine of Druze and Palestinian communities around here.
The freekeh after all is a simple,staple food but, yet, very special. By strict definition freekeh is a smoked green wheat, but the story behind its production gives it the unique historical connection and flavor: In ancient times, when there was shortage of wheat after the winter, farmers used to harvest the green wheat prematurely in order to have a new supply for their families. The premature grains were problematic because of the high water content, so it was hard to dry them only by sunlight. Farmers used to pile up the green wheat and set them on the fire. The high water content of the seeds prevented them from burning so only the straws would burn. The fire-dried wheat was then set to sun dry and then cracked, from here comes its name – Freekeh, which means cracked in Arabic.
Other than the high water content, the seeds of the green, premature wheat also contain high levels of proteins in comparison to mature wheat. Because the plant, during its growing phase, needs proteins and only develops high levels of carbohydrates later on in its maturity. Therefore, the freekeh has lower levels of carbohydrates and it is rich with fiber, so it is often associated as being healthy or a ‘super food’.
The unique process that the wheat is going through gives it a very special smoky flavor. Together with high protein content this smoky flavor is being associated many times as having a meaty flavor, especially when lentils or mushrooms are being added to the dish, so it is always a great meat substitution for vegetarians. The freekeh is cooked often like other staple foods as a side dish by hydration with water or a broth; it can also be used for a salad or as a filling to vegetables or chicken.
In our kitchen, we love using freekeh; it represents our local cooking and special ingredients selection well. We cook it as a side dish with onions, French lentils and spices. Another popular dish is vine leaves filled with freekeh and mint, which is then cooked in a broth with Persian lemon. Surprisingly, many people around here are still unfamiliar with this ingredient, so we often find ourselves explaining about its nature, origin and benefits. We hope that more people will discover the freekeh for continuing this culinary heritage that goes as far back as the times of the bible.