Every December 4th, for the past 2000 years, Arab and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Santa Barbara with this very special porridge, called Burbarrah, the Arabic name for Barbara. Greek orthodox Christians celebrate this day on December 16th.
What was so special about Saint Barbara? Barbara’s story, originating in Baalbek Lebanon, was that she was persecuted in the 3rd century because she believed in Jesus. The general belief among Middle Eastern Christians was that Saint Barbara had a cruel pagan father who wanted to kill her for believing in Jesus. He had her tortured in a prison, and Jesus would heal her wounds overnight, which further infuriated her father. While fleeing from her father, Barbara ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly behind her to cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds (or chickpeas, barley grains, beans, or lentils).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. Alternatively many also believe Barbara was locked up in a storeroom and only had wheatberries to eat. Regardless of which version Christians believe, wheatberries were an integral symbol of Barbara’s life, hence the reason this grain is revived every year in a feast with her name.
Arab Christians from Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria mark this occasion with Burbarrah porridge made from shelled wheat berries. In Syria they also call this dish “Sliha.” People also make this porridge in Malta, Cyrpus, and other European countries with orthodox Christian populations. This is an aromatic and filling dish for winter, versatile as a high fiber breakfast as a replacement for oatmeal, or even dessert. Families gather for a large burbarrah feast, with a large pot of cinnamon and anise scented porridge as the centerpiece surrounded by colorful toppings. Even children eagerly line up for this wheatberry treat, as they enjoy customizing their own bowls with sweet toppings of choice.
The bowls look like a festive winter scene, with coconut “snow” and glistening pomegranate seeds that look like holly berries. Other toppings include sultana raisins, dried cranberries, crushed walnuts, slivered almonds, ground roasted chickpeas, chocolate chips, and candied fennel. Watch this video to see how easy it is to create this symbolic and historical dish:
Ingredients (about 20 servings)
2 cups wheat berries
- 4 cups of water (add more as needed)
1- 2 sticks of cinnamon
1 tbsp of ground anise seeds
- ¼ – ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ¼- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup of coconut sugar or brown sugar (adjust to your taste)
Ground roasted chickpeas
- Sultanas (golden raisins)
- Chopped walnuts
- Chocolate chips
- Place wheat berries and cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cardamom, 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 40 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.