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Grain Cooking : Tales From the Bulgur Belt

January 27, 1994|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bulgur is more than just something to make tabbouleh with. It's also more than a quick-cooking rice substitute. In its Near Eastern home, bulgur's special qualities--the sweet earthiness of wheat, the textural possibilities of its graininess, the fact that it can be mixed with other ingredients without further cooking--make it the basis of a wide variety of soups and stews and snacks, both meaty and vegetarian.

Its quick-cooking qualities are certainly appreciated in the Near East, of course. Bulgur has replaced raw wheat grains in a number of ancient dishes that once upon a time had to cook all night. And tabbouleh isn't a health-food cliche there; it's a light, refreshing treat.

Bulgur is the sort of thing that couldn't have been invented in a cold climate. These days, bulgur is usually made in factories, but the traditional technique (still used in small villages) depends on the fact that in the Near East, wheat is harvested in July or August, when the weather is still hot, rather than in the fall.

When the crop is in, people boil the wheat grains in huge pots a yard or two across, a job that requires somebody to stay up all night watching the fire and stirring the pot from time to time. When the wheat grains swell and are thoroughly cooked, they are spread out to dry on the flat rooftops. Traditionally the wheat is carried upstairs by children, who are paid in spoonfuls of the tasty brown crust that has formed on the bottom of the pot.

When the summer sun has dried the wheat and the grains have shriveled and hardened, the wheat is hulled. Then a traveling artisan comes around to grind the bulgur in a portable, hand-turned mill. He doesn't grind it to the fineness of flour, because it's made from a hard wheat, which resists grinding fine; like durum semolina, it comes out more or less as grits. The ground bulgur is sieved into three or four size grades, ranging from coarse, for soups and stews, to very fine, for particular uses such as certain delicate pilafs.

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The essence of bulgur is that it is precooked. As anybody who has made tabbouleh knows, just soaking it in water is enough to make it ready to eat (although perhaps in need of some flavoring). Unlike raw grain, it can be chewed and digested without further cooking.

This is obviously a great convenience, but nobody seems to know exactly when or where this clever idea arose. Near Eastern cookbooks from the 10th and 13th centuries don't say anything about bulgur. The reason might be that medieval books mostly described haute cuisine and ignored many everyday foods, but their silence might also mean that bulgur was simply invented later than the 13th Century.

Unfortunately, all the theories about the origin of bulgur tend to fizzle out at some point. A lot of people believe the Turks invented it, and the word bulgur is often confidently said to be Turkish, but there's no linguistic reason to think so. Nothing like the word is found in any language related to Turkish--not even in Azerbaijani, which is practically a dialect of the language spoken in Turkey.

The likeliest candidate for the origin of the word appears to be palkhurd , which is a Kurdish word for "crushed," referring to crushed grain; its basic meaning is something like "small pebbles" or maybe "crushed with stones." The word bulghur has the same meaning ("crushed grain") in Persian--in the 14th Century a wisecracking Persian poet wrote, "I obtained a thousand bulghur : one spoonful of grits from the rounded soup pot"--and it's conceivable that palkhurd , or something like it, might have become bulghur in Persian.

This theory would be a bit more convincing if the unique thing about bulgur were that it was crushed, but raw cracked wheat has always been around. Unfortunately, we can't tell whether the 14th-Century bulghur was precooked, and modern Iranian cooks rarely use bulgur. To add to the confusion, Kurds themselves actually call bulgur sawar , a word they borrowed from their Armenian neighbors, who call it tsavar .

At any rate, it's clear where bulgur arose: somewhere around the southern border of present-day Turkey. A lot of nationalities rub shoulders here--Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Kurds and the Aramaic-speaking Christians known as Assyrians. Whichever group it originated among, the Turks were the ones who spread bulgur to places within their empire such as Egypt, Yemen, Cyprus and Tunisia.

In these new homes, bulgur gained only a relatively small foothold. It's still in Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey and among the Armenians--in the Armenian republic, and even more so among the western Armenians who escaped the massacres in Turkey at the beginning of this century--that bulgur is most used.

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