My mother’s favourite summer salad was tabbouleh (or tabouleh or tabouli, depending on your spelling preference). She would go into her garden and pick fresh tomatoes, onions, parsley and mint. She’d chopped them all up, and mix in olive oil, lemon juice, a dash of salt, and of course, the main staple: bulgur. The bulgur she bought at her local health food store. I’d never given a moment’s thought to bulgur before I read a 1920 report Susan Wealthy Orvis prepared for Near East Relief (NER). She described how to make bulgur—or boulgour, as she called it—which apparently doesn’t grow on trees.
When the NER workers were finally able to get in-country to Cesarea in early 1919, the first thing they did was divide the work among themselves. Susan accepted the role of housekeeper. This didn’t mean simple dusting, sweeping, cleaning and cooking. It was a huge task that involved hiring and supervising staff to clean five years of debris and filth left over from the Ottoman soldiers who had used the boarding schools of Talas as barracks. It also meant feeding the NER workers and hundreds of orphans, who quickly grew into thousands.
One day she took the other workers on a tour of the orphanage to show them how things were progressing. In case you’d like to duplicate the process, here’s the recipe.
How To Make Bulgur in 7 Easy Steps
- Step 1: Get a Bunch of Orphans
- It was very important for the orphans to be put to work. This was not only because, as Susan wrote, “everyone has had a part in the preparing of food for the winter.” It was also to help the children feel self-worth. Boys were given different duties; it was the girls who did most of the tasks involved in making bulgur.
- Step 2: Wash and Blanch the Wheat
- This step was done in the school’s courtyard. A large copper kettle over an open fire was filled with water. Some girls kept the fire burning. Others washed the wheat grains before dumping them into the kettle for blanching (parboiling). This step was repeated until all the wheat was used.
- Step 3: Dry
- After boiling, girls carried large bowls of wet wheat up to the ﬂat mud-roof over the dining room where they had laid sheets. They spread the wheat evenly over the sheets to dry in the hot sun. Once dry, they carried the grains back down again for pounding.
- Step 4: Pound
- At the foot of the stairs near the school’s wall, two women pounded the wheat with a big stone mortar. “This part of the work is too heavy for the girls,” said Susan. The wheat kernels would crack and the hulls would fall away, hence the term “cracked wheat.” Technically, bulgur is cracked wheat that has been blanched.
- Step 5: Sort
- Other girls gathered the bulgur again, carried it up to another flat roof, and spread it on big sheets. They then sorted it by removing the hull (husk). When this job was done, they carried the bulgur down again for grinding “in the old-fashioned hand-mills.”
- Step 6: Grind
- “Around a low round table with a sheet spread under it,” Susan wrote about the tour, “eight or ten girls sorting out the bits of sand and stone from the grain. They were having a gay time, laughing, talking, and singing at their work. Near by were girls sitting two by two at the stone hand-mills, making them whirl ’round merrily. These mills are like those in Bible times. Two women or girls sit on the ground facing each other, and both take hold of an upright stick fastened into a socket at one side of the upper mill-stone, and thus they turn the stone round and round. In the center of the stone an opening a few inches in diameter allows the grain to pour in as it is needed.”
- Step 7: Sift, Sort and Store
- The final step occurs when the bulgur is “gathered up from the sheet and sifted. The ﬁnest part is kept for soups, and the coarser grain is put away in bins or large stone jars.”
Susan noted that the coarse grain was used to make pilav (pilaf). “This is the chief food of the villagers. When it is boiled and has hot fat poured over it, it is a very nourishing food. Often bits of meat are cooked with it, and a tomato sauce may be poured over it.” She also described the pains-taking method of making of “yarma”, a kind of bulgur-yoghurt-porridge-soup; “erishte”, which is a dried dough cut into noodles for use in soup; and “mantu”, a meat-stuffed dumpling.
Her report concluded with a reference to flour being “the chief thing, for bread is certainly the ‘staff of life’ here. It is easy to see that much money is needed just at this season , and much cellar and store room space is required to keep the food safely.”
Personally, I prefer to buy bulgur from the local shop.