Bulgur is a quick-cooking form of whole wheat that has been parboiled, dried and cracked with very little of the bran removed.
Bulgur differs from cracked wheat in that it has been precooked and is ready to eat with minimal cooking. It is a nutritious whole grain that is extra good for you.
Making wheat into bulgur is an ancient process that originated in the Mediterranean region. Biblical references indicate bulgur was prepared by Babylonians, Hittites and Hebrew populations nearly 4,000 years ago. Arab, Israeli, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations ate dried cooked wheat as early as 1000 B.C.
The Roman word for bulgur was “cerealis.” Israelites called it “dagan,” while other Middle Easterners called it “arisah,” which is how it is referred to in the Bible. Biblical archaeologists described bulgur as a porridge or gruel made of parboiled, sun-dried wheat.
Bulgur was an ideal food for early civilizations because it resisted mold and insect contamination and could be stored for long periods. Some small eastern Mediterranean villages still use old methods of making bulgur by boiling wheat in big pots until it is thoroughly cooked. The kernels are then spread in the sun to dry. The hardened kernels are then cracked, sieved and sorted by size for different uses.
Today, bulgur is produced using a modern mechanized process.
Bulgur is the main ingredient in Tabbouleh, but there are many other ways to use this grain. It can be used in pilaf, combined with meat in meatballs, added to soups and stews, or used as a filling to stuff vegetables.
I recently tried a pilaf recipe with bulgur, lentils and cashews. There are thousands of variations of pilaf that usually involve cooking rice or wheat in a stock or broth to prevent the grains from binding together. Armenians often use bulgur in their pilaf dishes.
The lentils called for in this recipe are the small, green Puy lentils, which originated in France and are now grown in North America. They hold their firm texture better than brown lentils. Puy lentils are prized for their pepper flavor, so they add a nice element to this pilaf. Lentils provide a large measure of daily protein for vegetarians. Together with the bulgur and cashews, they add crunch and heft to the pilaf.
This bulgur pilaf is a very hearty dish and can stand alone as a nice luncheon entree.
Bulgur and Lentil Pilaf with Cashews
1/2 cup green lentils (preferably Puy)
Boiling water to cover
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1/3 cup cashews
1 teaspoon coriander
1 cup bulgur
3 ounces feta cheese (optional)
Thinly sliced green onions for garnish (optional)
Put lentils in a heatproof bowl. Add boiling water to cover by 1 inch. Cover the bowl and let stand for 15 minutes.
Warm oil in a large frying pan. Add onion and pinch of salt and saute the onion until it begins to soften and turn a pale golden color. Add cashews and coriander and saute until cashews are lightly toasted about 5 minutes.
Add the bulgur to the pan and stir until combined with oil and onion. Drain the lentils and add to the pan. Stir in 3 cups water. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the bulgur and lentils are cooked (15 to 20 minutes).
Uncover the pan and rake the mixture with a fork to fluff it.
Put pilaf in a serving dish and top with feta cheese and green onions, if desired.