This isn’t your typical porridge…
December marks one of my favorite food traditions in my family–the feast of Santa Barbara. Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese Christians celebrate this feast every year beginning on December 4 for Roman Catholics, and December 16th for Greek Orthodox Christians. They commemorate this holiday by making a sweet dish called Burbarah (the name for Barbara in Arabic).
Saint Barbara was persecuted in the 3rd century because she believed in Jesus. The general belief among Middle Eastern Christians is that Saint Barbara disguised herself in many different characters to escape the Romans who were persecuting her. While fleeing from the Romans, Barbara supposedly also ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly behind her to magically cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds (or chick peas, barley grains, beans, lentils) in little pots. The seeds germinate and grow quickly to around 6 inches in time for Christmas. Then the shoots are used to decorate the nativity scene usually placed below the Christmas tree. I remember my great Aunt Bahia used to do this every year, and I would marvel at the plants as a child, helping her water the grasses and watching them grow so quickly.
Arab Christians also mark the occasion with Burbarah (the name for Barbara in Arabic) porridge made from shelled wheat berries. Some people believe this is in remembrance of a time when Barbara was locked up in a storeroom and only had wheat berries to eat. This is a great aromatic and filling dish for winter, and one of my personal favorites for breakfast or even dessert. I like to make a big batch for a burbara gathering, and put little bowls of toppings all around so everyone can customize their own bowl. This is a great way to get kids to like wheat berries, as they can customize their own bowls with their sweet toppings of choice.
The bowls look like a festive winter scene, with coconut “snow” and glistening pomegranates that look like holly berries. Other toppings might include sultana raisins, walnuts, chocolate chips, or even m&m candies! You want a soupy, porridge like consistency, so make sure you watch the Burbara to ensure that it doesn’t dry out. The pic above is a bowl made by my grandmother in Bethlehem. The pics below were taken at my church, where the lovely women cooked a huge pot and sold the bowls as a fundraiser for the church. I could have eaten 6 bowls of them had I not gotten so full!
- Ingredients (about 20 servings)
2 cups wheat berries
3 sticks of cinnamon
1 tbs of ground anise seeds (optional)
½ cup golden raisins
10 cups of water
1/4 cup of honey, sugar or brown sugar (adjust to your taste)
Mini chocolate chips (these melt nicely in the warm porridge) 🙂
- Place wheat berries and cinnamon sticks, and anise in a large pot. Add the water. Set over high heat to boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer until the water starts to evaporate. About 20 minutes into simmering time, add the sugar and the raisins. Continue simmering for another 20 minutes or so depending on how soupy or dry you like it. Traditionally, the consistency should resemble that of hot porridge. Serve hot with almonds, walnuts, coconut, pomegranate seeds and any other topping you wish.