Author, photographer, food consultant and TV host, Barbara Abdeni Massaad, follows the trail of Lebanon’s homemade wheat porridge, hrisseh
Hrisseh, a traditional Lebanese dish, brings back many a childhood memory, walking around as a toddler, or maybe a bit older, holding my parents’ hands at village fairs during summertime. This rich porridge is prepared in commemoration to the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary that is celebrated by Christians all over Lebanon on the 15th of August. Similarly, Moslems also prepare hrisseh to celebrate the end of Ashoura, a feast celebrated by the Shia community all around the country and which this year falls in mid November.
Village dwellers, guests and passersby gather around a hot cauldron and take turns mixing the porridge as it slowly cooks for hours, over a coal fire. The fire is continuously fed with dry pieces of wood and logs. The flavors of the slowly cooked meat seep into the wheat while the fire gives a smoky taste to the mix. Hrisseh is comfort food to most Lebanese and is very much appreciated. On the day of the feast, each member of the family, guest or even complete stranger is given a small plateful of rich hrisseh, cooked to perfection. Some will eat around the cauldron, sharing stories and anecdotes, while others settle for a quiet spot with the family to enjoy this laboriously prepared hot meal.
Because hrisseh needs a lot of time to cook, many will shy away from making this delicious porridge and only wait for yearly village fairs to enjoy its flavor. Thankfully, there are ways to make the process easier and less time consuming. There are variations to making hrisseh too, chicken, beef or lamb may be used or a combination is also acceptable. Usually large chunks of meat (beef or lamb) are used with thick bones of lamb to make the stock richer. The meat dissolves during the cooking process and turns into bits and shreds. Those who prefer a lighter variation use chicken.
HULLED WHEAT PORRIDGE – HRISSEH
(Serves 6 – 8)
• 500g hulled wheat
• 1 kg cubed meat shanks
• 500g – 1 kg lamb bones (use less if you want lighter results)
• ½ tsp peppercorns
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 cinnamon stick
• Sea salt
To save time, soak the wheat overnight. Next day, place meat and bones in a pot filled with cold water and bring to a boil; skim away any scum. Add peppercorns, bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and salt use coarse salt for best results. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for at least 1½ to 2 hours. You will obtain a rich stock, strain through a sieve. In a double boiler, empty the stock adding the chunks of meat and the soaked wheat. You may add the bones too if you like, some prefer a very rich flavor. Bring to a boil then leave to simmer until the wheat is cooked. The meat will dissolve into the wheat therefore making the porridge very chewy and robust. You may need to add additional water as it cooks if the liquid evaporates too quickly. Serve warm in medium-size bowls.
You can substitute the meat shanks with a large cooked chicken (use free-range or organic for best results). Use the stock of the chicken to cook the wheat. Follow the same procedure as mentioned above. Lamb bones can be added for extra flavor.
Find more traditional recipes and learn the history of Lebanon’s culinary wealth in Mouneh, Preserving Food for the Lebanese Pantry by Barbara Abdeni Massaad.