I always smirk a bit when I see “tambouli salad” in a deli case or on a salad bar here in the United States. Nice try, but that’s far from authentic Lebanese tabbouleh. The proportions are all wrong — parsley should dominate, not the bulgur. Maybe we’re just not used to eating so much parsley. This Mediterranean herb is often dismissed as a table garnish. But parsley is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in vitamins A (beta carotene), C and K, and packed with health-promoting flavonoids. Plus, you’ll never come close to the tabbouleh I’ve enjoyed in Lebanon (pictured here) or the version I’ve learned to make myself under the watchful eye of my Lebanese mother-in-law if you skimp on the parsley.
Tabbouleh is one of the most famous of all Lebanese dishes. In fact, this beloved traditional salad is a source of national pride. There’s even a national celebration of tabbouleh each summer in Lebanon. Here’s a poster promoting National Tabbouleh Day in Beiret, which is held at Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market.
The methods of making tabbouleh vary according to regional or family traditions. But like the Lebanese flag, the basic ingredients and colors never change — the green, red and white are always present. The word tabbouleh comes from the Arabic word Mtabali, which means seasoned. I typically only use salt as my seasoning, but some people in Lebanon prefer a version with additional seasonings. Haalo from Australia (Cook Almost Anything) features a tabbouleh recipe that includes allspice, cinnamon and pepper (and includes some great photos).
I’ve seen Americanized versions of tabbouleh made with couscous — but resist that. You really need bulgur (referred to as burghul in Lebanon), which is a wonderful fiber-rich ingredient — perhaps the original whole grain. You can easily find these cracked wheat kernels in most supermarkets now, or try Middle Eastern markets or natural food stores. I’ve also seen garlic added to some U.S. tabbouleh recipes, but that would be laughable in Lebanon. Tabbouleh is meant to clean the palate and freshen the breath between bites of spicy, garlicky food — so it’s never to contain garlic itself.
1/2 cup bulgur, fine cracked wheat
juice of 4-5 lemons
3 bunches fresh parsley, finely chopped
handful fresh mint, finely sliced (optional)
3 medium tomatoes, diced
6 green onions, thinly sliced (with green stems)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt (to taste)
romaine leaves, for serving
There are various grades of bulgur — fine, medium or coarse. Save the coarse bulgur for making pilafs. You’ll need fine or medium for tabbouleh (I typically use fine or #1 bulgur). I’ve found two different versions of fine bulgur in the Middle Eastern markets in Chicago; you can see that one is much darker than the other. Even though bulgur is considered a “whole grain,” a small part of the bran is sometimes removed during the drying and cracking of the wheat kernel. You can see the differences in color below, the version that is darker includes more of the bran. I used the lighter version for today’s tabbouleh so the specks of white would be more visible.
The recipe I’ve learned to make from my mother-in-law Karam starts with soaking the bulgur in fresh lemon juice (about the juice of 2 lemons). Please don’t use bottled lemon juice — it makes a difference! Let the bulgur soak for 20 minutes or more until all of the liquid is absorbed and the bulgur appears dry. Then fluff with a fork. Some people in Lebanon only rinse the fine bulgur and then dry it — no softening is needed for the fine grade. If you’re using medium bulgur, it’s best to cover it with hot water and let it soften for 30 minutes or longer. Just be sure the water is all absorbed and you squeeze out any excess liquid. The bulgur needs to be dry, nothing is worse than soupy bulgur. I often let the bulgur soak in my mixing bowl while I prepare the parsley.
The most time-consuming part of making tabbouleh is preparing the parsley — washing, drying and hand chopping. But I must admit that I’ve found ways to successfully cut corners. In Lebanon, flat-leaf parsley is typically used and it’s carefully sliced by hand to create hair thin and crisp slivers. Over chopping can bruise the parsley and create a limp, mushy salad. I know this is not so authentic, but I pull out my Cuisinart. I find that if I use curly parsley instead of flat, it stands up better to the food processor. But first, you must thoroughly wash the parsley. I soak the bunches in cold water and pull off the stems, then rinse several times in a colander. The parsley must be extremely dry before putting it in the food processor, so I use a salad spinner to speed the process. Work in batches and gently pulse the Cuisinart until the parsley is coarsely chopped. Don’t keep it running and over-process, the parsley can quickly turn to mush.
Pour the coarsely chopped parsley into your mixing bowl in batches, pick out the random stems that may appear. If you’re adding mint (I don’t always), thinly slice by hand and toss into the parsley. Add the diced tomatoes and sliced green onions and mix well. Squeeze the remaining 2-3 lemons on the mixture, toss, and then add the olive oil. Mixture should be moist but not drenched. Add salt to taste, toss well and enjoy.
Traditionally, tabbouleh is a part of mezze (appetizers) — eaten by hand scooped up with a romaine lettuce leaf, white cabbage or fresh vine leaves.