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Before Mush

August 29, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

Before there was bread, even before there was porridge, there was parched grain. It's still being made too.

Put yourself in the place of our Stone Age ancestors. There were wild grain seeds all around, but each was protected by a bothersome husk. Eventually, with the development of agriculture, farmers would select grain that could be easily cleaned by threshing. Meanwhile, our ancestors had to figure a way of getting at those seeds.

They discovered that if you built a good hot fire on a flat rock, cleared most of the embers away and dumped the unhusked grain on it, the heat would scorch the husks right off. In the process, the grain would become more digestible--and lots tastier. This toasted grain could be chewed as is or crushed into a sort of coarse flour. It was always ready to eat; just add water.

Made from barley, this primeval grain food was the "parched corn" (qa^li in Hebrew) referred to in the Bible, the sawi^q of the Arabs, the talqan of Central Asian nomads. The ancient Greeks used molds to shape barley dough into longish lumps called mazai, from which we get the words masa and "mass." They made a distinction between bread, which was baked, and maza, which was not, so mazai were probably made from parched barley. You sprinkled them with water before eating.

Today, the Tibetans still make barley tsampa and the Peruvians make kancha from corn. The Thais add toasted rice to some dishes. And let's not forget the most oddball, and most popular, parched grain of all: popcorn.

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