14 July 2007

Making Tabbouleh

All over Syria and Lebanon, women are chopping parsley. The quiet rhythm of their knives, swish, swish against the cutting board, slicing bunches of verdant green leaves, part of the rhythm of the region. Tabboule is considered the national dish of Lebanon and the pride of Syrian cooks, a salad of bright green parsley flecked with tomatoes, bulgur, mint and lemon. Part of the pride of tabboule is the labor it takes to make it, the parsley must be chopped by hand (a food processor bruises the parsley too much), and it takes a lot of chopped parsley to make even one serving of tabboule. So having someone over for tabboule is a special occasion and an honor- I love this idea, when was the last time someone invited you over where the celebrated dish was salad, when have you seen pot-bellied men clap in delight at a bowl of greens?

When I would make tabboule with Umm Hana, we'd spread a cloth and sit down on the floor and set to work chopping, often working several days ahead of time. Children would run in and out as we chopped and chatted, drinking tea, neighbors or friends might stop by to visit and even join in the labor. A good bowl of tabboule is a delight, whether gulped lustily with a spoon, scooped with elegant lettuce leaves, or eaten with thin pita bread, squeezing the bread to absorb the lemony dressing.

This is a continuation of my discussion about misappropriated Arab foods, last time we talked about hummus, and I want to thank everyone for their passionate responses, I loved hearing your experiences. Now, we're talking about the even-more-maligned tabboule, which so often marauds as a bulgur salad in the West. No, no, no, I want to shriek, tabboule is parsley salad with just a little bit of bulgur. Now granted, there are regional variations, and there is a 'Turkish tabboule' which is primarily bulgur, but tabboule is not synonymous with bulgur salad. Here are some tips for making traditional tabboule:

- Parsley should remain the primary ingredient, not bulgur.
- The parsley should be chopped by hand (I give tips on how to do this below).
- Use a generous amount of olive oil- you need a lot of oil to coat all those little parsley pieces, and don't balk, it's good for you (besides, parsley's a diuretic). You'll also need a complimentary amount of fresh lemon juice, there should be a bit of dressing floating in the bottom of the dish (great for smushing your bread into).
- Traditionally, there is no garlic in tabboule. Also, no cucumber or red peppers please.
- Tabboule is best when served about an hour after it's made- it needs time to rest for the parsley to soften, but if you wait too long it well get soggy.

When I first came to visit my mother after living in Damascus for a year, she joked that I was always chopping herbs in my spare time. She was right, I'd snatch a bit of down time to chop the parsley for that salad I so craved. Sometimes, I'd buy a box of prepared 'tabboule,' then buy a big bunch of parsley, chop it up, and stir them together with some extra lemon juice. I still like chopping herbs, the soothing rhythm of it, the smell of freshness. So if you want tabboule, I'd suggest you sharpen that knife and get to work, there's chopping to be done.

I'd like to point out that the parsley, mint, and tomatoes in the above photo were taken from our garden, talk about a home-made dish! And as always, your own comments and experiences making and eating tabboule are welcome!

With a little experience you can estimate the quantities of ingredients by eye when making tabbouleh. However, because bunches of parsley and the size of tomatoes can vary greatly, I give measurements in cups here to ensure the proper ratio of ingredients.
Bulgur is available in the grocery next to the couscous and rice, it is often in a box labeled 'tabboule mix.' You can also find bulgur at your local ethnic market, where it will probably come in grades of coarseness, you want grade 3 or 4.

1/2 cup coarse bulgur
5 cups finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (see instructions)
1 cup finely chopped scallions
1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes
1/2 cup finely chopped mint leaves
3/4 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup olive oil, or more as needed
salt, pepper, and allspice to taste

1. To chop parsley: Sharpen your knife. Gather several stems of parsley in your hand. Pull the stem ends down so that all the leaves are clustered evenly together (see photo). Gather the leaves closely together and press against a cutting board. Holding the leaves in place with your left hand, use your right hand to very thinly slice the parsley leaves. Once you've chopped that bunch, you can go back and chop a few remaining big pieces, but avoid going back over the parsley, as further chopping will result in bruised leaves. Continue with remaining parsley, placing chopped leaves in a bowl. This can be done over 1-2 days, storing parsley in the refrigerator.
2. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Pour over bulgur in a bowl and let sit at least one hour, until softened.
3. In a large bowl combine the parsley, scallions, tomatoes, and mint leaves. Fold in the bulgur. Stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and allspice to taste. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour to one hour before serving. Serve with small lettuce or endive leaves as scoops.

See also: Clifford Wright's Tabboule


kowpuncher said...

that looks very tasty :D

Grigori said...

I am glad you added the comment about regional variants to recipies (re tabouleh). Some are vary from area to area and even from family to family. Hummous bi tahina is certainly good example of this; the lemony/tahini/garlic balance being a matter of taste.


Carly said...

What a lovely blog you have! I am so happy I found you. I am drooling over the tabouleh. Can't wait to get some real stuff in Kuwait! Thanks

Ninapilar said...

thanks for sharing these recipes - I am a fan of Taboleh and Hummus, now I can try making them!

Sean said...

I, for one, appreciate the adherence to tradition. The original dishes are what they are for their simple compositions. Thanks for promoting this! I am currently struggling with others to omit roasted red peppers from hummus bi tahine. Oh, it's tasty; it's just not hummus!

Anonymous said...

Yeslamu ideky ya Mercedes!

Beautiful tabbouleh, just had some last night for dinner with lemon-grilled chicken. Gorgeous!

My mother begs to differ, as she only uses this sort of knife for chopping mlookheyyeh, but I find that using a mezzaluna knife can be good for beginners finely chopping large amounts of parsley. I see my mother's point, as not being too careful with a mezzaluna can bring forth parsley that's too finely chopped, sometimes even a tad bit mushy.

With experience, knife chopping can be perfected. As my mom says, tabbouleh does not taste the same with a mezzaluna, using your hand and your knife makes it more delicious. 'Azka bil ideyn ya mama.' :)


lindsay said...

looks fantastic; thanks so much for sharing the recipes! it's hard to find something 'authentic' these days. can't wait to try it.



Kaleigh and Sky said...

Wow. That looks really nice!
It looks pretty good.
Very pretty looking too. :)

Frasier said...

So good!
I have eaten the stuff that passes for tabouleh here,it was99% cosu-cous!!!

Mercedes said...

d.a.- ta'ban!

carly- welcome and thank you, look for a Lebanese restaurant in Kuwait, I'm sure you'll have lots of good food!

sky sister- i do hope you try them!

sean- oh dear. I'm glad you also believe in tradition, but I'm afraid I'm conflicted about what you said. I'm also a strong believer in innovation (for example, Ana Sortun's work) and I think you should eat the foods you love. So if you love hummus wih red peppers, by all means eat it! That's the joy of new discoveries, it may not be traditional but it tastes good, and that's what's most important.

dalia- Ahlan, your comment made me smile! Thanks for the tip about the mezzaluna, I always forget to use mine, and I think it can be good for lots of chopping. Sahtain!

lindsay- thanks, i hope you enjoy the recipes!

k&s- thanks!

frasypoo-i know, the frustration, couscous in tabboule, agh!

LeeAndrew said...

Very nice blog. I'm definitely going to have to look through the blog and get some good recipes.

neonangel said...

I'm not much of a cook myself, but your beautiful photographs make me think I can. ;)

You are an excellent writer and the luscious imagery you convey is reason enough to warrant a return vist.

Mark M - Clutterme Founder said...

Wow, I would just like to say that being newly acquainted with Syrian food at my University, I LOVE it.

b_e_a_d_i_e said...

what a great job u did on this blog.

my mother makes tabbouleh and humus all the time, they are one of my favorite foods ever.
great job.

valentin10 said...

really nice recipients and interesting, it's very great, congratulations !!! I'm getting hungry now

Melissa Bach Palladino said...

Hi Mercedes--thanks for the authentic recipe--I'll be trying it for sure. Any preference for type of mint?


Mercedes said...

lee and neon-thanks!

mark- glad you're enjoying Arab/Levantine foods!

beadie- how lucky to have a mom who cooks those for you!

thanks valentin

melissa- I'd recommend spearmint. You want a mint that's more herbal and not too menthol-y.

L. Barker said...

What a delight to have found your blog! I love tabbouleh! Please keep it up.


Alison said...

gorgeous blog! kudos! Your pix come out so lovely; how do you do it? mine always look so grainy online. Can't wait to try your recipes.

Anonymous said...

I have never made, or even eaten, tabbouleh, but your description and recipe urge me to try.

In fact, I can almost smell the parsley and lemons, now.

Mercedes said...

lfb- thanks!

alison- thanks, maybe you should make sure your camera's resolution is high enough?

jules- what a wonderful compliment, i do hope you try it!

Danny said...

Hello Mercedes,
Thanks a lots for those yummy dishes ..
as I see you love arabian dishes! .. I am arabian ... and I love to eat tabbouleh a lot. .. but its not that hard to make!!!.
I'm new at your blog ... just watching from few weeks ago.
Thanks again .. and keep the good work up ..
(I hope you visit my blogs !)
Do you speak arabic??
cya ..

Ani L. Arambula said...

I have never seen a tabbouleh that is more parsley than bulgur. Nor have I seen it with flat leaf. But then again, I live in the U.S. and there aren't a lot of Lebanese in San Diego. I have always enjoyed this salad and used to make it often. It's been a long while since I've made it and next time I do, I'm trying your recipe. It looks scrumptious!

Mercedes said...

danny- ahlan wa shukran, na'm, behki arabee, but unfortunately I don't have Arabic on my keyboard so I can't type properly

photogirl- it sounds like you haven't had real tabboule, or at least not the traditional Levantine version! i hope you get to try it.

broadcasting from a knitting parlour said...

I'm linking your blog to mine! Just reading your blog is transcendent. So, more parsley than bulgur? That makes sense. More "salady" and aromatic, yes? I need a bigger crop of parsley! Mercedes...you have made me very hungry!

Rima and Kevin said...

Yes! You have it right! As a Lebanese girl (born in raised in the USA but fed Lebanese food...and then fed more, as is typical of the Lebanese), it is so nice to see tabbouleh and hummus the right way. Your recipes are to the letter the same as my mother's. I am sending her the link to this blog--she will be so happy!

Dori said...

Yum! Real tabbouleh with lots of fresh, green parsley! I love it this way and am so disappointed when I end up eating a bulgur salad. I can't wait to try this at home!!!

Maya said...

this recipe is great i tried it out and at the end felt it needed a little sweetness so i added 1 large white onion, finely chopped, and it was a great addition. Shukram ktir for posting.

Anonymous said...

I've never been able to get the mint and lemon amounts right...thank you so much for the measurements!!

Unknown said...

For the record, the Lebanese restaurants here in the New Orleans area seem to be doing it right: mostly parsley, little bulgur. However, when I set out to buy bulgur to make my own, I found that those boxes labeled "tabboule mix" that you make reference to can contain a myriad of other ingredients (parsley and mint, but also molasses?!?) so beware, and read labels! I had to visit a second store before I found organic bulgur in bins for sale by the pound.

Unknown said...

Dear Mercedes,

As a Lebanese lady making taboule at least once a week i have to congratulate you not only on your recipe but on the way you take it step by step describing exactly how the parsley should be cut, the important hint I would add is, when you cut the parsley (mint also)it should NOT be wet, cut it first then wash it, I personally wash it in a very fine sieve let water run over it very generously and let water drain for at least half an hour. I know some people who wash it in bunches, hang it over night to dry then cut it. Also you can preserve cut parsley up to 10 days, line up your container with kitchen paper, put shopped parsley, cover with kitchen paper & close tightly your container, finally we do not soak burgul in hot water as we like it crunchy & we mix taboule the last minute before we eat it.

Eva said...

Hi Mercedes, i just discovered your blog & have loved all the recipes i've seen so far! i totally agree about getting recipes straight as to how they should properly be made... Sadly too many are bastardised!so, i'm glad that at least some people take care into doing it right & sharing that kmowledge with others...so, thank u. I'd just like to ask you about tabbouleh about the coarseness of the grain...you mention grade 3-4, i can only find thin, medium & coarse. I thought medium was ok, but since you mention coarse, maybe the coarsest is best?(most recipes suggest small!). Thanks in advance & nice meeting you through your blog!

Zuateg said...

Greetings from Brazil! Really your site is unique. Right placê. You add humanity when talking/writing about the way people make his food. Marvelous touch!

Natalie said...

This is the healthiest recipe I've found for Tabbouleh. I can't wait to try this!! Thanks for the recipe :)

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