The creaking floorboards, the flurry of activity, the muffled voices in the hallway all had me at the edge of my seat, waiting for that much anticipated knock on the door. When would they come? What would they send down? Would it be sweet? Would it be savoury?
As a child, the waiting period between our upstairs neighbours settling in to their vacation flat and sending us exotic, edible delights, seemed like an eternity. Why is something other than your mother’s cooking so appealing to children? And yet when we grow up, all we want is to have our food taste “just like Mom used to make.” My mother was an excellent cook but still, I waited impatiently for the neighbours upstairs to send down their delicacies. And maybe that’s it, it was different food and as a youngster, and unlike many other youngsters, I loved everything and I loved variety. It’s only now in my old age that I find I am more picky; smell and taste challenged.
The first rap on the door had me jumping up from my usual perch on the sofa watching TV (after all my homework was done, of course. I happened to be a big swot) With great anticipation I would open the door, waiting to see what was displayed on the large tray balanced precariously on the shoulders of the maid. Our neighbours were very generous people. They never sent down a solitary dish of food, it was always a tray with an array of dishes filled to the brim with great smelling, steaming hot Gulf goodies.
My favourite part was uncovering these dishes to find what treasures lay beneath. The aromas were always a good indication but the thrill of lifting up the cover was always a special moment. Secretly, I always hoped for certain favourite dishes of mine. As I would uncover the dishes, I would hope to find my favourite syrup soaked Arabic doughnuts; Luqaimat, or the succulent, fall off the bone lamb, redolent with warm Middle Eastern spices nestled amongst fragrant Basmati rice, or this stick to your bones, homey, Harees, a wheat and meat porridge; perfectly sticky and glistening with ghee.
There was absolutely nothing very special about this porridge, no specific herb or array of spices that set this apart and I believe it was and is the simplicity that makes it so appealing. I just remember the pleasant stickiness of the wheat once it is ground and I remember the taste, especially of the clarified butter that added the best flavour of all.
This dish is homey and perfect for the fall and winter temperatures. I made this during Ramadan and it was perfect in the summer too. It is comfort food. It can be made with chicken, lamb or beef. The neighbours made it with lamb, I make it with beef (my lamb issue and all) or chicken.
You could very easily make this in the slow cooker and I have made it like that before. I also like to use my pressure cooker when I don’t want to wait (just don’t use the pressure cooker for the rice, makes a BIG mess).
My familiarity with Harees came from my Kuwaiti neighbours. I know that the Emirati also make a similar dish with their blend of spices. I am quite sure almost all countries in the Middle East have a similar wheat porridge, and it may be a little different but this one is what I remember from my neighbours.
Indian and Pakistani cuisine have their own savoury wheat porridge known as Haleem. Of course, here the major flavours are Indian with cinnamon, cumin, coriander, chilli powder, cloves; once again warm, comfort food spices. Haleem is also served with lots of melted butter and fried onions.
- 2 cups/420g wheat berries, soaked overnight in 6 cups water
- 1 cup/200g rice
- 12 cups/3L water
- 2 large onions, sliced fine
- 2 teaspoons Bharat, an Arabic spice mix
- 2 lbs/1KG beef cubes, lamb or chicken
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 8 tablespoons ghee or oil and melted butter plus extra for spooning on top (oil from frying the onions works too)
- Harissa, Sriracha or other hot sauce for garnishing
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorn
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 small cinnamon stick, coarsely chopped
- ½ teaspoon whole cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
- ½ whole nutmeg, grated
- To make the Baharat: Place all the spices in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind until a fine powder is formed. Store in an airtight container, where it will keep for 8 weeks.
- Cook rice and wheat until tender in a large stockpot, about 2 hours (or use your pressure cooker, for the wheat) keep aside
- Cook meat with spices, cardamom, cinnamon stick, turmeric and garlic until tender.
- I use my pressure cooker to get the meat nice and tender in about 30 minutes.
- Fry onions till golden brown, keep some aside for garnish
- Add meat, Baharat, cayenne pepper, green chillies and fried onions to the cooked wheat and rice mixture.
- Process the mixture in batches in a food processor or blender until smooth (won't be totally smooth)
- Add water if you want it a bit more runny or to process in a blender,
- When all the mixture is puréed, add clarified butter and mix through on low heat to heat through and for the mixtures to meld, about 10-15 minutes.
- When serving, pour more clarified butter over the top and serve with a dollop of Harissa, fried onions, cilantro and can have more Bharat spice mix available to sprinkle on top if desired.
The amount of spices, garlic and consistency can be adjusted.
Taste and add more spices, salt or pepper.
Onions are a wonderful garnish and almost a necessity.
Melted butter is also a must.
So, with autumn here and winter on its way, make up a pot of this very warm and comforting wheat porridge and enjoy it by the fire place. Talking about fire places, it is already beginning to get so cold here in the evenings and I am resisting the urge to turn on the heating! Normally, my favourite electric bill is from the spring and fall because I don’t have to turn on the air or the heat! How’s the weather where you are?
Wishing you all a great week ahead, enjoy your Sunday! I’ll be watching The Denver Broncos go 4-0 and baking up a storm (so I can keep the house warm without turning on the heat 🙂 )