Belila (pronounced be-lee-lah) is Egypt’s answer to oatmeal. It is a beautifully simple and comforting hot porridge, traditionally made with whole wheat grains, or wheat ‘berries’ as they are often called.
They are a little bit difficult to find here in Sydney, although again, as with the split fava beans for the falafel, I was able to find them in most of the simple Middle Eastern grocery stores out in the western suburbs, and very cheap too. Pearl barley, however, is very commonly available in grocery stores, and it is quite similar in texture, shape and taste to whole wheat berries, so I decided to try using that instead. I am glad to report that it worked absolutely wonderfully! So I can safely say that they could both be used here interchangeably.
The grains get a good soak in plenty of water and a bit of baking soda overnight, to soften them up and make them easier to digest. Soaking also reduces the cooking time significantly, so even though technically soaking is not necessary, to me it’s really an essential step.
Once soaked, the grains are cooked in water until tender, then vanilla, milk and a little sugar are added to form a deliciously creamy and mildly sweet porridge, perfect for breakfast on cooler mornings. During the month of Ramadan, it is also very popular to eat for ‘sohour’, which is the pre-dawn meal muslims often have before their daily fast starts.
Because it is made with whole grains, ‘belila’ is extremely filling and nutritious, and keeps hunger at bay for quite a while, unlike most commercially available cereals. I remember we always had a big batch of this lovely porridge in our fridge during Ramadan, and my sisters and I loved to heat up a bowl as a snack before bedtime. It still brings me the same sense of comfort and cosiness today.
Belila: Egyptian Wheat Porridge
- 250 g whole wheat berries OR pearl barley
- 1 tbsp baking soda sodium bicarbonate
- 1.5 l water
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 750 ml whole milk
- sugar or preferred sweetener, to taste I used about 8 tbsp. raw sugar
- Place the wheat berries/pearl barley into a larger bowl. Add the baking soda and cover with plenty of water, and leave to soak at least 5 hours, preferably overnight.
- Once the grains are soaked, wash them thoroughly and drain. Place the grains in a large pot with the 1.5 litres of water and place over medium-high heat. Bring to the boil, reduce to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes, until the grains are tender but still have a bite to them (think of al-dente pasta). The liquid above the level of the grains should have almost all been absorbed/evaporated at this point, and the small amount left should be slightly thick. The pot should not be dry; if at any point during cooking you feel the pot is about to dry out, add more hot water a cup or so at a time.
- Add the vanilla pod/extract and the milk. Bring it up to a very gentle simmer on low, and simmer, while stirring, for a further 10 minutes. Sweeten to taste and serve hot or warm. Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days, and can be reheated as needed.