Region: Arab Levant
Category: Antipasto, Meze, Tapas, and Hors d'Oeuvres
Difficulty: Easy but labor intensive
Tabbouleh, also transliterated as taboule, tabouli, or tabouly, is an herb salad dotted with swollen grains of bulgur, that vies with hummus and pita bread as the most famous Arab foods to have migrated to the United States. In the Arab world, and especially in its home of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, tabbouleh is a salad usually made as part of a meze table. The word tabbouleh (tabbūla) derives from the root Arabic word "to season" or "to spice." This root also gives the name to the Tunisian spice mix known as tābil, and the Palestinian eggplant dish called bādhinjān mutabbal. The herb seasoning being referred to is coriander or cilantro (tawābil) although tabbouleh is usually made with parsley and mint. The key ingredient in a tabbouleh, but not the main ingredient, is the hard wheat product known as bulgur. Bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), the wheat known by the ancient Greeks and Romans, was not as versatile as hard wheat. Hard wheat developed as a mutation from emmer wheat (Triticum diococcum) somewhat recently, probably after the period of the Sumerian civilization (5000 B.C. to c. 2100 B.C.). Not only can hard wheat be made into bulgur but it also is the basis of pasta.
The masters of the tabbouleh are the Lebanese and Palestinians who prefer, as I do, a tabbouleh where the majority of the salad is composed of the green herbs, not overwhelmed by the bulgur. The taste of a true tabbouleh should not be of wheat but of herbs. The longer the bulgur sits and absorbs the olive oil, lemon juice, tomato, and onion juices, the more it will swell and dominate the salad, so keep that in mind. Many cooks make tabbouleh with a food processor by pulsing in short bursts, although I still prefer the texture of the labor-intensive method of hand-chopping all the ingredients with a large chef's knife. Tabbouleh is properly eaten by scooping up small amounts with pieces of romaine lettuce, not with a fork and knife, nor with pita bread. Bulgur is sold according to sizes. The size you will use here in tabbouleh is the coarse bulgur #4.[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 6:45 in all
1/2 cup coarse bulgur # 4
Juice of 4 lemons
6 cups finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (about 6 bunches)
1 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 pound ripe tomatoes, very finely chopped
2 large onions, peeled and very finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/4 to 1 3/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 bunch romaine lettuce, separated, washed, and dried
1 bunch scallion, trimmed
1. Cover a strainer with cheesecloth and place the bulgur on top. Place the strainer in a pot filled with cold water and soak the bulgur for 10 minutes. Pull up the sides of the cheesecloth, encasing the bulgur, and squeeze out all the water. Transfer to a large bowl.
2. Toss the bulgur with the lemon juice. Toss again with the parsley, mint, tomatoes, and onions and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil and leave to rest at room temperature until the bulgur has absorbed enough liquid to be tender, 4 to 6 hours. Correct the seasoning and olive oil, enough to look shiny and moist but not gooey and oily. Serve garnished with romaine lettuce leaves and scallions.