This dish, a stew of wheat berries and meat (or chicken) has been around for a long time in Lebanese traditions. It brings to mind different events, depending on who you ask. Most recently, the Ashura commemoration gives rise to feverish and communal preparations of hreesseh; when it is finally ready, it is offered not only to the extended family but also to the entire neighborhood, regardless of people’s religious affiliation.
Hreesseh is prepared by stirring huge quantities of wheat berries in broth for at least 6 hours; in the image below, Hajj Hussein uses a wood stick, much more practical than a wooden spoon; the pot, as he explained, contains 45 kg (over 100 pounds!) of hreesseh; he ended up stirring for six hours.
This recipe was generously shared by Mrs. Malak Kabalan. I was surprised by the saffron; thankfully I had some and it really makes the wheat berries sing. (In my adapted version, I did not stir for more than 10 minutes, so it is not so authentic, but a lot easier!)
The idea is to cook the chicken in its broth; once cooked, the broth is what is used to cook the wheat berries, getting them infused with flavor and spices; the chicken by then is all cooked and gets added towards the end (minus all the bones and skin).
INGREDIENTS: 8 servings
1 lb wheat berries, soaked in a large pot filled with water overnight
3-lb chicken whole
1/2 cup butter (clarified) or ghee
Spices: Salt, to taste
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons warm water
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp white pepper
1. Place a large pot over medium heat and melt the butter; add the whole chicken and brown it on all sides. Add enough water to cover the chicken (at least 8 cups), and bring it to a simmer. Cook the chicken for about 45 minutes until tender. Cool the chicken on a platter and debone it; keep the chicken pieces for later (to add to the wheat berries).
2. Strain the broth and transfer it to another pot; add the wheat berries (previously drained) and all the spices; cover and bring to a simmer; cook the wheat berries, stirring them from time to time, for about 40 minutes or until tender. If not, add more water and simmer longer. When ready to serve, uncover the pot, add the chicken pieces, bring to a gentle simmer and stir a few minutes till the mixture is creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve warm.
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