Features & Stories

Q&A with Ruth Nieman, author of Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains

5 January 2022 · Author Profile

Ruth Nieman’s love of food dates back to her time spent working in the kitchens of an Israeli kibbutz over 30 years ago.

London-based caterer-turned-food writer Ruth Nieman divides her time between the UK and Israel, learning about, writing about, and photographing Middle Eastern food. Her love of food dates back to her time spent working in the kitchens of Kibbutz Amiad in northern Israel over 30 years ago.

After returning to London, Ruth earned a Diploma in Food and Wine from Leiths School of Food & Wine and set up a busy catering business. After she was compelled to give up her business for health reasons, Ruth turned to food writing and discovered she was rather good at it.

Her first book, The Galilean Kitchen, published in 2017, won a prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Her second book, Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains, published in October last year and now available in full on ckbk, has been longlisted for an André Simon Food & Drink Book Award.

The new book provides a wealth of detail on einkorn, emmer, spelt, and other ancient grains and cereals, as well as the grain of the title, freekeh. The term ‘ancient grains’ has become trendy among the health-conscious in recent years. Ruth’s in-depth research on the topic provides the facts that give weight to the health claims. The book includes a total of 68 recipes for breads, salads, main dishes, and sweets.

Ruth’s website, Israel Good Food Guide, showcases the best of the country’s cuisine. We asked Ruth about her route to food writing, her research into ancient grains, and about her food-writing heroes. Here is what she had to say...

 
 

Q What prompted you to become a food writer?

I unfortunately had to give up my catering company following an accident that left me unable to continue with the business, so I decided to embark on an online diploma in food journalism to keep my mind active, while readjusting to a more sedentary lifestyle.

Following its completion and receiving a distinction for my writing, I realised that food writing was not only what I wanted to do but something I could do well. It gave me the confidence I needed following some rather difficult years. 

Q Your first book, The Galilean Kitchen, published in 2017, won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Cookbook for Peace & Culinary Tourism in 2018, and ‘Best of the Best’ Cookbook for Peace, over the 25 years of the Awards in 2020. Not bad for a self-published, first-time author. What did you hope to achieve with that book, and how did you go about writing it?

I had hoped that by self-publishing a cookbook, I would gain recognition as a food writer specialising in Middle Eastern cuisine and go on to write more, based on my knowledge of the culinary culture.

 

“Freekeh is not an ancient grain, it is an archaic process for a contemporary staple.”

 

The idea for the book genuinely fell into my lap following a food workshop that I participated in while on an annual jaunt back to Israel with my son, where we cooked in the kitchen of Nawal, a delightful Arab home cook.

From there, I took the opportunity of working with her and other home cooks from the Druze, Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin communities, cooking their recipes for traditional Arabic food that had been passed down through generations of matriarchs. I then created a narrative about them, their food, and the indigenous ingredients of the lush land.

Q Your second book, Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains, was published last year. How did you get the idea for the book, and how long did it take to research and write?

The initial idea came from Catherine Kilgariff of Prospect Books, after meeting her at a Galilean Kitchen Supper Club I was running. The idea of writing a book on freekeh with the historical, biblical, and ancient cultural links to the unripe wheat was very exciting, and it was an idea that I felt I could do justice to with my knowledge of rural Galilee and its agricultural and culinary history. Because of the pandemic and, more importantly the travel restrictions, it took me just over a year to research and write it.

 

“Ancient grains are making a comeback as we aspire to sustainable eating and a return to the staples of our hunter-gathering ancestors.”

 

Q Why do you think it’s important to bring the likes of freekeh, wild wheat, and other ancient and heirloom grains to the attention of cooks?

Freekeh, wild wheat, and ancient grains were the staples of our hunter-gathering ancestors and they are part of our culinary heritage. They are nutritious whole grains, full of proteins, vitamins, and minerals and, because of their reduced gluten structure, they aid digestion. They have re-emerged as the healthy carbohydrate for modern eating and plant-based diets. 

Q Which three recipes from Freekeh would you most encourage people to try, and why?

Freekeh Risotto. A simple-to-make risotto that is finished off in the oven and that is packed full of flavour. It does not require the cook to watch over it, adding stock and stirring, and is a meal in itself.  

Ancient Whole Grain Granola. There is no better way than to start your day than with a healthy bowl of whole grain granola. This recipe makes a large quantity, which will last you a good few weeks (unless you snack on it like I do) and it also makes a great present. Top with yoghurt and fruit for a nutritious breakfast.

Date, Apricot & Walnut Khorasan Tea Bread. Packed with dried fruits, nuts, and seeds, this is a fragrantly spiced tea bread that couldn’t be easier to bake and that astes delicious with or without butter – or, for an extra treat, tangy citrus curd.

 

“There is no better way than to start your day than with a healthy bowl of whole grain granola.”

 

Q Do you have a cooking philosophy?

Keep it simple. We all lead such hectic lives that we don’t need to overcomplicate our food. Just because something is easy to make doesn’t mean it will lack flavour.

Q To what extent is it possible to learn about a culture through its recipes?

I think you can learn a lot about a culture through its recipes and ingredients. For example, in The Galilean Kitchen, the recipes are all for rustic, homely dishes made from scratch, passed through down through the generations with very little change over the years. There are no recipes with endless lists of ingredients, and most are easily accessible to the Western cook. There are many basic recipes, too, for tomato purée from the glut of over-ripe tomatoes, baharat spice from the herbs and spices grown in the gardens, and many more Middle Eastern staples, all of which are made in Galilean kitchens, year after year.

Q Which food writers have most inspired or influenced your work?

The legendary Claudia Roden, from her stories of her childhood, her travels and most of all her understanding of the culinary culture of the Middle East. Evelyn Rose was also an inspiration when I was starting to cook, particularly during the Jewish festivals, when I would cook with my mother or grandmother.

Q If you were banished to a desert island and could only keep one cookbook, which would it be?

Definitely one of Claudia Roden’s, but I would find it hard to choose between The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Popular recipes from Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains

Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains is now available in full on ckbk.