Legendary Dishes | Helise / Herse / Keşkek (wheat and meat porridge)


Called herse in the province of Baburt in north-eastern Anatolia and helise in Ağrı, the region south of the Caucasus range and mount Ararat, the enigmatic dish known as keşkek throughout the eastern Mediterranean is reserved for celebratory events, weddings in particular. It takes a whole day and lots of effort to cook this dish which is why it is fit for celebrations.

A food-writer in Turkey once said that keşkek can be considered a socialist dish. Let me explain why. In Anatolia when a family sits down to dinner, if there is a meat dish on the table, the best parts are offered to the guests if there are any. If not then to the head of the family, followed by the elders, then the women and finally the children. However in keşkek the meat is pounded together with wheat berries beyond recognition so everything is mixed together. For large crowds such as a wedding party this makes it much easier to distribute as nobody knows which part they are getting, making it an equal treatment for all.

Keşkek is also made with chicken or goat or veal and can be made without meat, although this would lessen the depth of flavour.

  • 2 litres water
  • 1 kg lamb neck / 1.5 kg whole chicken (optional)
  • 500 g wheat berries, soaked in water for 8 hours
  • 250 g cooked chickpeas
  • 150 g onion, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp red pepper flakes / red pepper paste
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds (optional)
  • 1 tsp hot paprika power (optional)

In a large pot combine the wheat berries, water, salt and neck of lamb. Cook over medium heat until wheat berries are softened.

Take out the lamb or chicken, separate the meat from the bones, leave to cool, then pull the meat into strings and put back in the pot.

In the meantime sauté the onions in 30 grams of butter until softened. Add this mixture to the pot and continue to cook over a low heat for approximately 45 minutes, stirring constantly. The mixture should resemble porridge and the wheat berries and meat should have melted.

In a small frying pan melt the rest of the butter add the red pepper flakes or red pepper paste and, for a hotter version, a teaspoon of hot paprika powder. Take off heat. Heat the chickpeas.

Transfer the porridge to a large platter. Pour the butter sauce on top and sprinkle with cumin and garnish with chickpeas.