Freekeh Herb Salad with Labane Dressing

Ancient grains are now staples in many modern kitchens. This renewed interest is in part due to the work done by writers and cooks such as Ruth Nieman. Ruth is a chef, writer and educator and has just published a recipe and cook book about the fascinating history of these grains and how to use in the contemporary kitchen. For example, Grains such as freekeh with its nutty, fragrant taste and high nutritional values are increasingly popular and available in health food shops, delis and even the more enlightened supermarket.

Freekeh helps shape landscape

Freekeh’s name is derived from the Arabic word ‘to rub’ and its recorded usage dates back millenia. Indeed, the harvesting of grains such as freekeh, barley, emmer, sorghum wheat, rye and spelt sculpt the lansdscape of Israel’s Judean hills and the lush northern regions known as Galilee.

A green dish with the finished recipe of Freekeh Herb Salad with Labane Dressing
Freekeh Herb Salad with Labane Dressing (Image © Ruth Nieman)

When in the Levant, UK-based Ruth tends to buy to freekeh from an Arabic grocery store in the village of Rameh in Galilee and “I usually pack a couple of kilos in my suitcase to bring back”. Moreover, she adds: “The smokier the smell of the freekeh the fresher it is”.

Parched grains, wild wheat

It’s in the Old Testament that we first discover that this ‘parched grain’ was grown by the biblical figure Boaz across wild wheat fields around Bethlehem. An the immature, green wheat known as freekeh is re-emerging into our diets as a healthy part of modern eating. The ancient agricultural tradition of harvesting unripe wheat and smoking the husks on an open fire is still practised amidst the lush Galilean terrain and remains a principal staple in the Arabic cuisine, says Ruth.

From the Greek physician and philosopher Galen, we learn that ‘everything that is good is assembled in barley soup’. From extensive research with the help of archaeologists in northern Israel, it’s now understood the diet of the hunter gatherers from the Natufian era (15,000 years ago) feasted on wild emmer and barley. Today, these grains can be found growing across the foothills of Mount Hermon, for instance.

A cultural heritage from the Middle East

These wild wheats and ancient grains of our culinary heritage are staples of the Middle Eastern diet. Today, artisan bakers, chefs and home cooks create breads, risottos, salads and desserts for the modern healthy eater, using emmer, einkorn, barley, rye, spelt and khorasan. This book is full of historical, biblical and cultural tales which Ruth brings to life through her own Jewish background and experiences of cooking with these ingredients. The book takes you on a journey from ancient lands to the modern plate.

Cover of the book Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient grains, recipes for healthy eating. Shows a hand holding ancient wheat.
Favourite recipe

Paired with fresh herbs and warming spices, the labneh dressing, which in Israel is fresh and tangy, the following recipe and dish works deliciously with the nuttiness of the freekeh. Greek yoghurt works just as well, says Ruth, who adds that this is one of her favourite recipes.. 

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Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.