Belilah is a portmanteau, a made-up word coined from a combination of the French words Blé Au Lait, which means wheat-milk. Most probably, the inception of authentic Egyptian porridge is traced back to the French colonialism that lasted in Egypt from 1798 to 1801.
This simple, no-fuss porridge made with basic, affordable ingredients has become for more than two centuries the synonym of comfort in Egyptian households. It is simply made of pearl wheat cooked in water or/and milk, flavored with spices and decorated with nuts.
Belilah conjures up many childhood memories in my grandparents’ house back in Egypt. It was one of the staples in my grandma’s repertoire. I watched her many times lovingly preparing big batches of Belilah for friends and neighbors on all sorts of occasions, especially in Ramadan.
The tradition of exchanging comfort food during Ramadan among Christian and Muslim neighbors is one of the warmest and most genuine social practices that I hold dearly and keep practicing to this day.
My grandma cooked the pearl wheat in water and added a splash of milk when it is all cooked but I fancy cooking mine in milk and amping up the flavor of the bland grain with a subtle infusion of warm spices.
For over three decades, this Egyptian porridge was a dormant food memoir until a couple of weeks ago, when the U.S embassy in Singapore asked to contribute with a porridge recipe for the embassy’s porridge campaign to greet Singaporean Muslim in Ramadan.
It was the first time to cook the belilah in 18 years since my grandma passed away, and it felt so good to reconnect with those remote memories through this evocative, authentic dish.
I take this opportunity to wish my Muslim friends, neighbors, mentors, and loved ones blessed Eid Fitr.
“Belilah”, The Egyptian Porridge
Serves 6 people
- 1 1/2cups of pearl wheat (Farro is also an option), soaked over night and rinsed
- 4 cups of full-fat milk
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 4 pods of cardamom, bruised
- 7 edible dry rosebuds or 2 teaspoons of rose water
- Coconut flakes, toasted
- Silvered almonds, toasted
- Pistachios, lightly crushed and toasted
- Soak the pearl wheat overnight in cold water. In the morning, drain the water and rinse the wheat.
- Sweeten the milk. Pour the milk into a heavy bottom pan over low heat, add the sugar and stir until all the sugar is dissolved.
- Infuse the milk. Add the rosebuds, cardamom pods, and the stick of cinnamon in an infuser bag and dip it in the milk for the spices to impart their flavors.
- Add the pearl wheat to the milk and keep stirring over low heat. When the wheat is all puffed up, turn off the heat.
- Decorate with nuts and/or sprinkle some cinnamon powder.
- Serve hot or cold.