Tabbouleh1 is sometimes called the fairy salad, usually by grateful vegetarians with happy tastebuds. It is undoubtedly the most popular Lebanese salad, claiming the honour of being Lebanon's national dish. There are as many ways of making tabbouleh as there are villages and matriarchs within those villages but the basic ingredients are always parsley, tomato, white onion and bulgur2 mixed with olive oil, lemon and salt. The spices will differ and the method will alter but those are the basic ingredients and they never change. No cucumber, no sweet peppers, no large grains of couscous, no vinegar and it must look green and red - like the Lebanese national flag, not brown like wheat.
- A towel
- A bucket
- A large mixing bowl
- A smaller serving bowl
- A sieve
- A very, very sharp large knife
- A V-slicer (optional for masochists)
- A large chopping board (preferably with a channel)
- Lettuce leaves for tasting
- Lemon squeezer
As a Lebanese girl, your mother may teach you how to make tabbouleh, but the person you need to worry about is your mother-in-law. Every household has its own quirk or secret for making their tabbouleh the only one their son will eat. This secret will only be divulged when and if the girl acquires the acceptance of her mother-in-law. Unfortunately, this blessing may only come with the first grandson which means a lot of unpalatable tabbouleh for the poor young husband. Your only consolation comes with the knowledge that your time will, by the grace of God, come and you shall also wreak your revenge on a poor hapless young woman in love.
Fresh and Wholesome
The single most crucial aspect of any Lebanese meal is the freshness of the ingredients. The cuisine makes very light use of masking herb and spice flavours in everyday cooking. Fruits and vegetables that are grown in season and matured on the mother plant are far superior in flavour and texture to hothouse produce. The solution, of course, is to grow your own and eat in season. Not usually practical, but that is how it happens in Lebanon. This is why, even if it is Mama herself making it while visiting her son and heir abroad, the food still seems to taste superior 'back home'.
- 4 bunches of tender flat parsley
- 4 large, ripe tomatoes
- 2 large, ripe lemons, juiced
- 1 small/medium white onion
- 2 tbspns fine bulgur
- 1 tspn chosen spice(s)
- 1 tspn salt
- 20cl extra virgin olive oil
Starting with the parsley, it is the flat leaf variety that is called for. It needs to be tender and fresh, so look for a bright (not very dark) green, and when you crush the leaf, it should bend readily, not crackle. Very large dark green leaves indicate old growth. You don't want old growth. It is chewy and bitter. Parsley can be very expensive in the supermarkets so it is best bought at an ethnic greengrocer's. Don't buy coriander instead, though! Coriander is sold with the roots on whereas parsley stalks are always cut. They also smell very different. Lightly rub over the top of the leaves and sniff your hand; coriander is very fragrant whereas parsley is more subtle.
Next comes the tomato. Invest in a large beef or slicing variety and make sure it is very ripe but unbruised. It will feel firm to the touch but when you squeeze it gently3, it will give slightly. It will also be a deep red in colour. Buy it!
Onions come in all shapes and sizes. You want an old-fashioned, boring, no-frills onion. Shallots are too small and fussy to work with. Keep it simple. White is excellent, brown is acceptable. Red is just showing off, and it tastes wrong. Some people will trick you into using spring onions; not that there is anything wrong with spring onions, some people do use them in tabbouleh. They are not included here because they are not for the amateur, but for the seasoned professional matriarch and her underling apprentices. The onion has to be very finely chopped and almost pulverised in this recipe. Spring onions will go bitter if bruised like that. The technique for spring onions in tabbouleh involves the use of lethal weapons and fingers that just know instinctively where that blade is going to land.
Bulgur? What's that when it's at home? It's cracked or crushed wheat. It most certainly is not couscous, a north African ingredient. Bulgur is also sometimes called pourgouri although in Middle Eastern ethnic food stores, you'll need to ask for 'burghul'. Buy the fine variety as the coarse is used for cooked dishes and crunches too badly in the teeth when raw. Some supermarkets have fancy little ready-mix 'tabbouleh' packets that cost the earth and half the moon. They contain bulgur. Don't waste your money.
Salt is salt, and lemons are lemons but olive oil is not 'just' olive oil. You want the finest grade available. That is cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. You are advised to buy the Lebanese varieties that are grown in the Bekaa. No, not because of the chance of a happy error in cross-pollination but because the climate is so suited to olive cultivation that the fruits are almost organically grown, with little need for chemical intervention. Failing that, go for a Greek oil. It is the closest in flavour to the Lebanese varieties. Failing that, opt for whatever nationality you can find.
Variety is the Spice of Life
This is where discussion of the spices and seasoning has to take place. There are many, many choices in how to flavour your tabbouleh. The key is not to overwhelm the flavour of the ingredients. It is just as important to use fresh spices, the flavour is honest and subtle. Old spices introduce an unwelcome bitterness to the dish where you want the sourness of the lemon and the sweetness of the ripe tomatoes to shine through.
Depending on your personal preference (and whether or not your mother-in-law lives locally) you may add a small amount of fresh chilli peppers4, finely chopped, or even a small amount of pomegranate molasses (dibs el remman) to give a very special little kick and a tang. If chillies are too much a good thing for you, try a teaspoon of fresh ground cinnamon. Some will finely chop a few fresh mint leaves into the salad just before serving. Do not do this to any tabbouleh you are going to keep for later. Cut mint goes black and bitter so reserve your leftover tabbouleh in the fridge before serving.
The spices most commonly used in tabbouleh are ground sumac5 and ground allspice.
Cleanliness and Godliness
Washing parsley is no one's idea of fun, but it must be done; and like all great things, there is a way to do it and a way to not do it. Get yourself a big bowl, a very big bowl. Put the bowl in the sink and fill it with cool water.
Cut off the ties holding the parsley stalks together. Take one bunch, separate the stalks and reform the parsley into a new bunch. You want the leaves all at one end and the thick crunchy stalks nowhere near them. You may need to remove the bottom stems off the stalk and reposition them so the leaves form a bunch, with the stalks pulled through the gap between the forefinger and thumb of your other hand. This gives you the chance to inspect for wilted or old leaves, foreign matter and imposters.
Push the bunched leaf end into the water. Swill around in the water and take it back out. Tip the dirty water into a big bucket to re-use in the garden. Do this over and over again until the water is completely clear. Flick your bunch vigorously to shake off as much water as you can into the sink (and over the kitchen floor) then lay it on the towel. Keep going until all the parsley is neatly bunched on the towel. Now go make yourself a cup of tea.
This is where it gets interesting. Carpal tunnel sufferers should look away now. The chopping board comes forward into position and the knife is wielded. With the non-knife-wielding hand pick up a bunch of parsley, lay it on the chopping board, hold the leaf end down firmly in a tight wad and approach with the knife. You start with the parsley because the tomato skins will blunt the knife and a blunt knife will bruise rather than cut parsley. Bruised parsley spoils and becomes bitter-tasting. Chop off the stalks and push off the board. Hair thin slivers of parsley leaf is what you are aiming for. Take your time. It takes time, especially if you would like to keep the bits at the ends of your fingers. When finished, place the cut parsley in a small serving bowl with paper towel below and over to soak up any remaining dampness.
Next come the tomatoes. Hold the washed fruit sideways on the board and slice very thin circles off it. This is very, very difficult to do. The tomato will not stay put, nor will it remain in one grippable piece. This is where the V-slicer6 comes into play. Use it to slice the circles of tomato. You are not done yet, though. You need tiny cubes of tomato so each circle has to then be laid flat and sliced again, but in a grid pattern. A channelled board is a very good idea for this, so the juices can go in the bowl with the bits rather than into your shoes as they drip off the work top. Place the cut tomato and juice into the larger mixing bowl.
Place both bowls in the fridge until you are ready to serve. In the meantime, wash the lemons and squeeze them, then place the bulgur in a sieve to wash. Just run cool water over the bulgur for a minute or so. Tip the bulgur into the lemon juice and set aside. Now go make yourself a stiff drink.
About half an hour before serving, get back in the kitchen and peel your onion in a bowl of cool water if you value your fingers (tearing eyes risk fingertips in this recipe). Deal with the onion as you did the tomato. Tip your chosen dry spices and seasoning on to the onion pieces and use your knife with two hands to rock back and forth over the onion, incorporating the spices into the mess you are creating.
Tip this on top of the tomatoes in the mixing bowl and add the lemon juice and bulgur. Add handfuls of parsley while folding the mixture like a cake, and drizzle oil over the lot.
Invite the most senior guest to come taste and guide you on necessary tweaking of oil, salt and lemon quantities. You do this by insisting vigorously while they politely desist. When you have succeeded in dragging them into the kitchen, you spoon some tabbouleh (from the juicy bottom of the bowl) into a tip of lettuce leaf formed into a cone and hand feed it to the guest (place a hand under their chin, just in case).
Serve and enjoy, and silently vow (again) to take them all to a restaurant next time.
Tabbouleh is actually a favourite with children, and a common meal at home, usually on a Sunday. It is served first, as the main component of the meal, sometimes just with fried potatoes (home-made, of course) and maybe a small meat or chicken dish for afters.
It is traditionally eaten with the hand. The eating utensil here is your carefully coned scoop of flat Lebanese bread (khobz), lettuce leaves (usually of the Romaine variety), tender cabbage leaves, grapevine leaves, large basil leaves, rocket, dandelion, and so on.
An absolute must is leftovers for the packed lunches on Monday, or you may have a riot on your hands. Leftover tabbouleh is delicious. It is very refreshing and the ingredients are totally immersed in each other, blending flavours to a symphony of just orgasmic proportions. Any bitterness would, of course, have made the tabbouleh utterly nasty by now, so heed well the warnings about old spices and bruised herbs.