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For many peoples bulgur came before bread. It may now be ultra-fashionable, but versatile, nutritious bulgur was in fact the world’s first processed food. Berrin Torolsan celebrates the revival of this Anatolian staple and its nutty joys with a collection of intriguing recipes
It’s the hip food of the moment. In the past two decades, the modern world has latched onto it. It tops dieticians’ lists as a fibre-rich grain. Star chefs devise their vegan dishes around it, while “Grain Renaissance” aficionados hail it as a potential source of nutrition for the future. Still, one wonders how many of its messianic new advocates are aware that bulgur is one of mankind’s oldest staples and quite possibly predates bread.
Pre-pottery Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent show evidence of wild grains such as millet and barley, and ancient wheat varieties such as spelt, einkorn and emmer, and it is believed that the domestication of all these cereal crops began there. It was thanks to pulses and these nourishing grains that man could survive long, cold winters, and arguably the last Ice Age.
It would not be far-fetched to assume that to make them digestible our forager ancestors used to parboil these cereals before pounding them. These pre-processed comestible grains would then have been dried and stored, ready to turn into a filling, nutritious porridge with minimal cooking, or none at all, soaking being sufficient. This basic method of producing bulgur goes back to time immemorial and is common to this day among the transhumant Yörüks. When they head up to the remote summer pastures above Söğüt in northwest Anatolia, and in the high Taurus Mountains of the south, they still take a few bagfuls of grain with them to sow in small fields and produce enough bulgur for winter.
Villages do the same, filling street-markets across the country with sackloads of bulgur. After threshing, the grain is cooked with double the quantity of water, then the swollen wheat kernels, known as hedik, are left to dry under the sun in the open air. Children love to nibble these like popcorn. Once dried and husked, the grains can be pestled at home in a stone mortar, ground by itinerant millers who travel with hand-grinders from village to village, or taken to the local communal mill (usually a watermill), to become an indispensable part of the rural diet.
And, indeed, bulgur dishes were probably around long before people discovered how to pulverise the grain to flour and to bake bread. In the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, on the Konya plain, numerous grinding stones hewn from volcanic rock have been unearthed, and Polish archaeologists from Poznań have found clay silos holding miraculously preserved carbonised grain. Some of the grain recovered at Çatalhöyük has been identified as einkorn and dated to 8000 BC.
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) is a kind of wheat that has fortunately been spared manipulation because each ear bears a single slender grain – as its name suggests – and therefore has little appeal for industrial agriculture. It is a great survivor, both hardy and hard, tolerating poor soil and extreme winters in rugged mountainous areas. There are pockets in Turkey, such as the Black Sea province of Kastamonu, where it is still cultivated on smallholdings. Known generally as siyez, it is used to make bulgur as well as bread.
Its cousin, emmer (Triticum dicoccon), another relic wheat – known in Turkish as kavlıca or kablıca (literally, hulled) after the strong husks that enclose the grain, and in Italy as farro – was cultivated widely in the ancient world, and has been revived around Kars in northeast Turkey after almost becoming extinct. A hard durum wheat – unlike the softer grains preferred for bread – emmer, too, is used for bulgur.
With advances in civilisation and agriculture, superior species of wheat would be cultivated, and wheat bulgur (Triticum durum Desf.) became the staple in large parts of western Asia, the Caucasus and the Fertile Crescent, where wheat grows as plentifully as rice grows in Asia, corn in the Andes, or as potatoes grew in 19th-century Europe. Emigrants from these areas introduced their cuisine to their new home countries, popularising bulgur in the United States and Europe in the second half of the 20th century.
Bulgur is still one of the most important staples in central, south and southeast Anatolia, often cooked as a pilav in water or stock, and consumed plain or with yoghurt. In the old days it was looked down on in the cities as peasant food, a sign of poverty, as the writer Halet Nusret Zorlutuna (1901–84) wrote in her poem Vermek Gerek (Need to Give): “Join the poor table of the village, and spoon the bulgur cooked specially for the guest…”
During the Ottoman era, rice was considered greatly superior. It was initially supplied from the Balkans, mainly from Plovdiv in present-day Bulgaria, until Egypt became an Ottoman sancak in the 16th century, and rice from the fertile paddies of the Nile Delta started arriving in Istanbul by the shipload. This cautionary proverb is still often heard: Dimyat’a pirince giderken, evdeki bulgurdan olmak (When going for rice to Damietta [in Egypt], one may lose the bulgur at home). Imperial kitchen accounts do record the Ottoman palace ordering bulgur from Bursa, along with small quantities of “a special wheat” (unspecified), which would have been pounded in the palace kitchens to make a meatball, or köfte, known as gendüm-i kûfte. But rice was the choice of grain for the countless different pilavs served at banquets, being considered lighter, more palatable, more elegant and less filling than bulgur – it left room for further delicacies.
Bulgur might have been dismissed as “peasant food” at the high tables of Istanbul, but its annual preparation remains a festive ritual in many parts of Anatolia. I have met people from the countryside now living in Istanbul who look back with great nostalgia to harvest time at home. Writing in a local newspaper in Tokat, the teacher and author Rasim Canbolat, who is noted for his tales of country life, recently described autumn bulgur-making in Küre, his native village near Çorum in northern Anatolia: “The best wheat is washed and dried, then cooked in huge cauldrons.” The cooked grains are spread out to dry on clean sheets, often on flat roofs, before being ground by hand with millstones – an exhausting job. It was reckoned that each member of the family would consume a teneke (12.5–13kg) in a year.
If even larger quantities were needed, Canbolat remembers, daughters of relatives and neighbours were asked to help (and the boys, too, would soon swarm over to lend a hand). The work was done late into the evening with much banter and chatter and country songs. That night, the owner of the house would kill a chicken, and a delicious pilav would be made with the fresh bulgur, cooked in its stock. There would be dancing and singing, and the night would end with the steaming pilav chased down with grapes (and perhaps a thirst-quenching hoşaf, or compote). Everyone, young and old, would go home tired but satisfied.
Bulgur and a handful of raisins, an energising combination, were a standard ration for Ottoman soldiers in the First World War: the bulgur staved off hunger and was quick to heat up. A factory was built at Karaman, on the Konya plain, to feed the army, and so began the emergence of bulgur as a commodity. Today it is produced in modern factories all over the country – it has become a huge enterprise.
In parallel, artisanal production of siyez (einkorn) bulgur is also booming, thanks to online ordering. As I write, Emine Yıldız, a friend who sells in our local market in Istanbul, reports that they have just harvested and dried the siyez grain in the hills around her garden above Amasra overlooking the Black Sea. As soon as she has finished other pressing tasks, such as making tomato paste, fruit preserves and erişte (pasta) to sell over the winter from her stall (and on her new website – look for emineorganik on Instagram), the fires will be lit and the bulgur cauldrons will be brought out into the garden…
FEATURED RECIPES: Kısır (Tabbouleh), İçli Köfte or Kubbe Köfte (Kibbeh), Bulgur Pilavi (Bulgur Pilav with Mince), Bulgurlu Mercimek Çorbasi (Bulgur and Lentil Soup), Kadinbudu Köfte (Crisp Bulgur Köfte), Çiğ Köfte (Köfte Tartare), Boza (Fermented Bulgur Drink)
A NOTE ON THE TEXTURES OF BULGUR: When villagers are making bulgur they are careful to sift the ground granules through special sieves, or kalbur, with different-sized holes. Bulgur is still sold in different grades of coarseness. Fine bulgur is used for köfte (packets are often labelled “köftelik”), medium-fine bulgur is best for soups and dolmas, and the coarse kind (known locally as kalburüstü, literally “top of the sieve”) is the ingredient for pilavs.
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