If you bring a meal offering of first fruits to the Lord, you shall bring new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your meal offering of first fruits.
One brisk, spring morning last year I found myself standing hip-deep in a Galilee wheat field. I had been invited to join in preparing farike, the roasted green wheat that is a favored ingredient in the local Arab cuisine. The ripening grain hissed in the breeze. With sickle in hand, I was primed to begin.
Since its domestication over ten thousand years ago, wheat has been the primary crop and staple food in this small slice of the Fertile Crescent. Up until the mid-1900s wheat was cultivated and processed here by Palestinian farmers, fellahin, using agricultural methods almost identical to those described in the Scriptures. To this day, at a time when modern agriculture has virtually put an end to traditional farming, a small number of Galilee fellahin still carry on the age-old practice of preparing farike. Abu Salakh, the owner of the wheat field I was about to help harvest, is one of them.
My friend Balkees, from Nazareth, is herself the daughter of fellahin. For years she has been my enthusiastic guide and partner in exploring local foods in and around her home. Balkees has known Abu Salakh and his family since she was a child. In their fields, bordered by the foothills of Nazareth, the family ekes out a living in a manner as close to traditional agriculture as you can find these days. The family also grows summer vegetables—tomatoes, okra, squash, and more—on land that supports cultivation without irrigation, producing the flavorful balladi produce rarely found outside Arab markets.
Samekh and Falekh, two of Abu Salakh’s five sons, joined us in the field. Lean and powerful young men in their twenties, they wielded their sickles with an easy grace. The wheat field before us was unequally divided—one smaller area was still green, while a section several times larger was already turning gold. Here, Falekh explained, were two different varieties of durum wheat. The former was for farike, which had to be picked while still green. The latter would be left for a month and a half to fully ripen, at which time a combine would harvest it for use in making flour. However, for the exacting work of topping the wheat stalks that farike production requires, machine harvesting is neither economical nor practical, which meant that Abu Salakh’s sons were harvesting the green wheat by hand.
Fully ripe wheat is the color of hammered gold. The kernels are so dry and hard that they must undergo some kind of processing—roasting, boiling, or grinding—to render them edible. Yet there is a short interval of a few weeks during which the mature wheat, though still green, is soft and full of starches and protein. This is the only moment at which the wheat can be eaten fresh from the stalk, and the time when farike can be prepared.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.
Green wheat becomes hard and dry when it is roasted, and although the dried grain is not suitable for grinding into flour, it is no longer perishable and can be stored for long periods—critical in the days before refrigeration, which in some Galilee Arab villages extended into the 1980s. In the past the advent of ripe green wheat was a cause for celebration, not only for its wonderful fresh flavor but also because it often signified a new supply of food after a lean and hungry winter.
Roasted grain (kali in Hebrew) is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. It appears in the list of foods that Isaac commands his sons to bring to their brother Joseph in Egypt, and it is the love offering that Boaz extends to Ruth as they rest on the threshing floor. Different English translations of the Bible refer to roasted grain as “parched corn” (corn being a British term for grain) or “parched grain,” yet in Arabic biblical translations the term that is used is farike.
Falekh showed us how to wrap the blade of the sickle around a bunch of wheat stalks just below the ears, grab the tops with your left hand, and then pull hard toward you with the sickle in your right. Our blades cut easily through the brittle stalks. We tossed each handful of wheat tops into a large canvas bag that we dragged along behind us as we worked. As we progressed slowly through the field, I asked Falekh if they ever sang any of the traditional fellah work songs. He dismissed my question with a scowl, and I understood that the old-time folklore had fallen by the wayside, leaving only the hard work behind.
The eldest brother, Salekh, drove up on a tractor. He loaded the two bags we had managed to fill into the wagon he was pulling, and we followed him up a low hill to a flat, clear area that served as their threshing floor. At its periphery were spread large tarps on which ears of wheat were drying in the sun—some just picked, others charred from roasting in the fire.
The brothers had balanced a metal frame on a jerryrigged stand and were piling armloads of dry wheat ears onto it. With cigarette lighters they lit the pile on either end, turning the packed wheat over with a pitchfork to spread the flames. The object is to burn off the bristles and char the kernel’s outer hull, which makes it easier to thresh away the chaff. The moisture in the grain keeps it from burning while it takes on a distinctive, smoky flavor. In the past the wheat was burned on a bed of barley stalks— the barley harvest precedes that of wheat, and the dry stalks provided excellent fuel. Today, if the fire doesn’t ignite easily, a blowtorch attached to a tank of butane gas speeds up the process.
The brothers spread the charred heads of wheat in a thin layer on a tarp. This hot, dirty, backbreaking process would continue for several days. When all the roasted wheat was sufficiently dried, a tractor-operated threshing machine, which made the rounds among the different farms in the region, would arrive. Once the grains of farike had been separated from the chaff and cleaned, they would be stored away, this time in the shade to prevent the sun from bleaching away their distinctive green color. Finally, the dried farike would be taken to a mill in one of the nearby Arab villages for grinding—coarse for regular cooking, and fine for making farike soup.
Coarsely ground farike looks like shiny, greenish bulgur, and it is cooked in a similar fashion. I enjoy it prepared like a pilaf, steamed in broth with browned vermicelli shards to release its rich, smoky flavor. Balkees likes to serve farike mounded on a platter and topped with pieces of roast chicken. Her farike soup is a rich chicken broth robustly flavored by the grains, which settle lightly at the bottom of the bowl.
According to Balkees, farike does not like to share the spotlight. Unlike bulgur, which can be mixed with lentils, tomato sauce, or meat, farike does not give up its identity when cooked. To illustrate her point, Balkees quoted a saying in Arabic: Ana mithel farikeh—baqbalish sharikeh, which roughly translates as “I am like farike—I won’t have any partners.” It is pronounced by a woman who has no intention of sharing her husband with another wife.
Although farike can be bought in most Israeli Arab stores and markets, it is often imported from Jordan or Turkey. Abu Salakh can’t compete with these cheap imports. Despite the higher price of his grain, those who have tasted his superior local product will make the trip to Galilee to purchase it right at the source.
A few weeks after our day in the field Balkees and I traveled to her family friends’ home in a village outside Nazareth. Um Salakh welcomed us outside the yard filled with goats, sheep, and chickens, then led us to the basement, where the freshly roasted grain lay piled on canvas. Acknowledging my small contribution to the farike-making process, Um Salakh would not accept any money for the kilo of fresh farike I took. But I did manage to purchase a bucket of her fresh, thick, goat’s milk yogurt and several slabs of jibni, her salty, homemade goat’s milk cheese.
Um Salakh told us that her family is the last in the village to still live entirely from agriculture. I knew from Balkees that the sons would prefer a less demanding and more lucrative occupation than farming. But in the meantime, the crops of vegetables had to be attended to even before the farike harvest was over; they had no respite from their toil. We left Um Salakh with Balkees’s parting blessing, Ya tiku el afiyeh: May you have the strength to carry on. I added a silent amen.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 cups rich chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup farike
Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan with a cover. Add the broth, salt, and pepper. When the liquid boils, add the farike, stir, lower the heat, and cover. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the flame and let the pot sit for 10 minutes. Serve garnished with toasted pine nuts and slivered almonds.