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Here at Leathams we like to think of ourselves as grain evangelists, enlightening our fellow food lovers on the path to healthy eating redemption. So if we are preaching the gospel according to the super-grain, then the messiah has truly returned in the form of Freekeh. Pronounced free–ka, it would, however, be unfair to label this as a second coming for this most ancient of grains as it has been widely used across the Levant, Egypt, Turkey and parts of Northern Africa for over 4000 years now. The growing interest in the fresh, aromatic and wholesome flavours of the Middle East are plain to see across the UK, as sumac, zatar, pomegranate molasses and tahini have acquainted themselves with the store cupboard of many an aspiring foodie. Coupled with the public’s ravenous appetite for novel super grains loaded with nutritional firepower like that of quinoa and spelt, a renaissance of Freekeh to the lofty heights of the grain world would seem to be inevitable. So what actually is the newest grain on the block?
Freekeh is typically durum wheat, but differs significantly in texture and flavour to your average wheat due to a number of key variances in the harvesting and processing methods. Firstly it is harvested when young and green, when the seeds are still soft and milky. Deriving from the Arabic word farik, meaning ‘to rub’, after harvesting the seeds are roasted to burn away the chaff and crack the husks, and then rubbed to give them an appearance resembling a green bulgar wheat. Due to the early harvesting and roasting Freekeh has a soft, but slightly chewy texture similar to that of barley; and a flavour that resembles bulgar wheat with grassier and smokier notes.
Also owing to its early harvesting, the nutritional value of Freekeh is also far higher than that of your average grain. According to studies* in Australia, Freekeh contains much higher levels of protein and minerals than mature wheat, but it is in fibre than it far outweighs its competitors. Research indicates that fibre significantly helps weight loss as it inherently makes you feel full quicker. Freekeh contains 3 times as much as fibre as brown rice, and twice as much as the most on trend super grain out there, Quinoa. Aiding digestive health through the release of prebiotics, Freekeh is also high in resistant starch, which acts similarly to fibre, keeping you pleasantly satisfied for longer. Its benefits do not merely extend to weight loss however, Freekeh is also rich in carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxthein, which are proven to promote eye health, and what fat it does contain is that of the healthy heart variety.*
Traditionally, Freekeh has been used in a variety of different ways across the Middle East. In Egypt it is most commonly used in hamam bil-farik to stuff pigeons. Freeket lahma, a green wheat pilaf dish with roasted lamb, spring peas, and pine nuts comes from Syria, and shurba al-farik is a Palestinian soup with green wheat and chicken. Tunisian’s also use this green wheat in a bone marrow soup known as Shurbat farik bil-mukh. Freekeh does not merely lend itself to these hearty, well spiced traditional dishes, but is also being put to use in innovative ways. The baking trend of using ancient grains to transform bread with new flavours has seen Freekeh become delicious new alternative to traditional flours when ground. The same nutty and smoky flavour is joined by an exterior crunch from the roasted grains, but the inherent chewiness breaks down to a lovely silky and fluffy inner texture. As freekeh’s foremost advocate, and the leading voice in the popularisation of Middle Eastern cuisine, Yotam Ottolenghi also preaches its widespread utility. Like it’s counterparts from the same region, giant couscous and bulgar wheat, Ottolenghi states that Freekeh lends itself perfectly to risottos and stews, however because of its depth and complexity of flavour it adds much more.* With ready to eat freekeh now widely available, the green wheat is also the perfect addition to wholesome salad, but also makes a delicious and nutritionally fulfilling breakfast parfait when blended with yoghurt and fruit like pomegranate and figs that’s natural tartness or sweetness balances perfectly its earthy flavour.
Out in the food industry, Freekeh’s widespread utility has been noticed and the UK’s growing appetite is clear to see on many a menu. Ottolenghi has included it as one of his sides at his restaurant Nopi, pairing it with Cornish herbs and jalapeno, and Soho’s, The Palomar, sets it against one of its menu favourites, Jerusalem spiced chicken. Playing into its inherent earthiness, Benugo’s deliciously combines it with wild mushrooms, gremolata and truffle oil. Focusing on its nutritional value, a number of high street chains have also made use of Freekeh to provide a flavoursome alternative to your average lunch. Vitals’ Freekeh and mango chicken and Crussh’s barley and Freekeh health pot just to name a few. With its unique flavour and unbelievably lengthy list of health benefits, it’s easy to see not only the reason why Freekeh has caught the eye of the food industry, but also why it has been a staple of the Middle Eastern diet for four millennia.
*Australian CSIRO 2013
*Yottam Ottolenghi – Daily Mail, March 2013
Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant.