Wheat is the most widely cultivated cereal grain in the world and, along with rice, is one of the two most important food crops on the planet. While rice rules the tropics, it is wheat that owns the temperate regions - though wheat is more tolerant of heat than other temperate crops; even Egypt and North Africa produce good harvests of wheat.
And wheat has been important for a really long time. In fact, it is thought that wheat played a role in kick-starting civilization. It seems unlikely that it is mere coincidence that the earliest settlements about which we know sprang up where wheat grew wild. Flint sickles and stone mortars and pestles are among the evidence that Paleolithic people were harvesting wheat by the ninth millennium BC, though it seems that they were likely harvesting wild wheat. Before another two millennia passed, however, wheat was not only being planted deliberately, it had also spread widely from what is believed to be its place of origin: Asia Minor or that general region. So wheat wasn't just there for the start of civilization, it was there for the start of agriculture, too.
By the time the first written records appear, wheat is domesticated, cultivated, and well established across a wide range. Sumerians wrote in about 3100 BC about both bread (flat bread) and beer (eight different kinds) made from wheat. Records, both written and archaeological, place wheat in Akkadia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus valley not much later than this.
The Chinese attribute the introduction of wheat to Emperor Shen Nung. In his era, around 2800 BC, wheat was included among China's five sacred crops, along with soybeans, rice, barley, and millet. Even today, China's geography is colloquially almost defined by wheat (north) and rice (south).
Egypt became the biggest wheat producer of ancient times, with yields in the Nile Valley that have not been surpassed today with all the advances in agricultural technology. Wheat, believed to have been a gift from Isis, became the basis of ancient Egypt's economy. It was the Egyptians who discovered raised bread. However, they never domesticated yeast, they simply saved “starter” for making the next batch of dough - just as we still do today with the wild-yeast breads known as sourdough.
The ancient Gauls were the European masters of wheat. Wheat grew abundantly in totus Gallia. The Gauls grew all the varieties of wheat then known, and were even growing the bread wheat of today, though it wouldn't be common in the rest of Europe for another millennium. The Gauls invented a great plow, a two-handed scythe, and even an ox-drawn mechanical harvester. The Romans were amazed. Unfortunately, this all became a liability when Julius Caesar came on the scene. There was so much wheat in the fields and in the warehouses that the Gauls could not destroy it fast enough to keep it out of the hands of invading Romans. Caesar later wrote that “We had abundance in everything, nourished by those we were fighting.”
Wheat was initially introduced into the New World by Christopher Columbus, who had it planted at Isabela, Puerto Rico. But while that was the first planting, everyone else who came to the New World from Europe, Africa, or Asia brought seeds with them, and slowly, wheat was introduced here and there. However, wheat didn't become a gigantically important crop in the United States until settlers had pushed westward, where the broad prairies and temperate climate seemed designed specifically for the cultivation of wheat. A few planting and harvesting inventions later, and the Midwest was not only the country's “bread basket,” it was a major world supplier.
There are actually several species of wheat, and hundreds of varieties. However, only two species are widely cultivated. Triticum durum is hard wheat. It's used for pasta and noodles. Triticum vulgare is soft wheat, which is also known as common or bread wheat. The vast majority of wheat cultivated today is T. vulgare - hence the name “common.”
Bulgur, also known as burghul, is parched cracked wheat. Grains of hard wheat are boiled until they are almost ready to crack open, then they are dried - traditionally in the sun. The wheat could then be pounded into course grains that are easily stored (its most important attribute) and easily cooked. This method of preparation is popular throughout the eastern end of the Mediterranean, where it can be found in pilafs, such as the one below, as well as in such familiar Middle Eatern dishes as taboulleh and kibbe.
This dish is Turkish. It is a traditional side dish with meats, particularly roasted lamb or shish kabob, but you can also serve it with plain yogurt (about ⅓ cup per person) for a nice, light lunch. Enjoy.
½ cup butter (1 stick)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 cups uncooked bulgur
2½ cups broth
Melt the butter in a large frying pan that has a cover. Sauté the onions in the butter until they are golden brown. Stir in the bulgur and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomatoes and broth. Bring to a boil, stir, reduce hit, cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, or until broth is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes.
You can alter this dish to go with whatever it will accompany by changing the broth you use. Beef or lamb broth are the most traditional, but chicken broth makes a nice change, especially if you want to serve this with poultry. Alternatively, you could use a vegetable broth for a vegetarian dish.
Bulgur is now available in most grocery stores, though you may need to look in the organic aisle or in the aisle with flour and corn meal.