On a cloudy morning in late May, the wind rustles tall stalks of tawny wheat, and an entire field of plants murmurs softly. Close your eyes and listen to the whispering wheat, and it’s easy to imagine you’re eons away from a small farm off Arizona Avenue in middle of suburban Chandler.
Based on the sound you could be on a farm in Kansas or North Dakota, where fields of wheat reach as far as the eye can see and not just until they run into a road. But take note of the unusual height of the bearded stalks of grain and consider that part of the crop has already been harvested, and a better guess might be that you’re on a farm in northern Iraq.
It’s a good guess because this wheat, with its long black awns and pale yellow seeds, isn’t just any wheat. This is a rare, landrace strain of durum wheat native to Iraq — perhaps one of the oldest types of durum wheat still existing today. The drought-resistant strain, aptly named Durum Iraq, does well in arid climates; it grows taller than other wheat varietals and requires less water.
For farmer Hussein Al Hamka, this wheat is also a connection to home. And he’ll use this harvest to make Phoenix’s first local freekeh, a roasted grain product that’s popular throughout the Middle East.
Facing religious persecution due to his Yazid faith, Al Hamka and his wife Shreen abandoned their 75-acre farm in Iraq in 2007. After spending two years in a refugee camp in Syria and with help from the International Rescue Committee, they resettled in Phoenix in 2009. Through the IRC’s New Roots Program, which helps refugees grow their own food, the couple has since started a small farming business here in the Valley.
You might already know them from the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market, where Shreen sells excellent flatbread made in a homemade tandoor oven and Hussein sells his Al Hamka cucumbers. The long, slender cucumbers grow a layer of fine white hairs instead of the usual dark green skin, and their strong, fresh flavor makes them easy to remember.
Al Hamka grew the cucumbers with seed saved from his farm in Iraq and, along with the cantaloupe, chard, and radish varietals he’s brought over, they provide him and his family with a taste of home. He also wanted to grow the grain that he’d known in Iraq. However, when he tried to get seeds from his family, he found there wasn’t enough left to spare.
As luck would have it, Iraqi durum wheat is one of a handful of landrace grains preserved and brought to California by grain visionary Monica Spiller’s non-profit The Whole Grain Connection. And with help from a local farmer, Hayden Flour Mills brought the wheat to Phoenix in 2014 as part of an effort to bring ancient grains to Arizona.
In December, Al Hamka planted 15 acres of Durum Iraq on a 20-acre plot of land in Chandler. And instead of harvesting all of wheat for milling into flour, Al Hamka will turn a small portion of the crop into freekeh.
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Freekeh, which can be made from any kind of wheat, is a processed food product that’s popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula and in parts of North Africa. It’s made by cutting wheat while still green, and leaving the cut stalks to dry in the sun for about 10 days (depending on the weather). After the drying period, farmers gather the wheat, separate the grain from the straw and chaff, and finally roast the grain to impart a smoky flavor. The combination of the sweet, green seeds and the roasting give freekeh its distinctive coarse texture — similar to bulgur wheat — and taste.
If you shop often at Middle Eastern markets, you may have seen freekah before. According to Al Hamka, however, this product will be different from most in two ways: it will be fresher, of course, and it will be roasted. Much commercially available freekah refers simply to green wheat, the farmer says, though authentic freekeh refers only to the roasted product.
And as far as how you can cook with freekeh, the possibilities are pretty much endless. Shreen, for example, uses the green roasted wheat in yogurt-based salads with Al Hamka cucumbers; in grain-based salads mixed bulgur wheat; and even grinds the freekeh into a fine powder to mix with date juice to make candies.
Al Hamka freekeh made from locally grown Durum Iraq wheat will be available soon through Hayden Flour Mills, though pre-orders are being accepted now. The freekeh will be available in one, five, 10, 25, and 50-pound increments and will ship in June.