If you have heard of a little country called Lebanon you will certainly also have heard of its cedars and tabbouleh (as well as its wars!).
The large, splendid citron trees that covered this country in ancient times made its fame and fortune. Tabbouleh is a typical Lebanese dish – our national dish, you might say – and thanks to a prevailing exoticism it has become increasingly well-known outside the country.
But nothing is more offensive to a Lebanese than a bad version of tabbouleh, or an ‘interpretation’ of it, because there is only one way to prepare this dish – there is only one tabbouleh.
Firstly, let’s go back to basics with a definition of tabbouleh. Well, you’ll see it on my table practically every day. Sorry for this personal note – my daily eating habits are hardly the topic in question.
Tabbouleh is a salad, consisting of parsley – a lot of parsley – a little mint, onions (preferably spring onions), tomatoes, fine bulgar wheat (pre-steamed), a pinch of salt and pepper, plenty of lemon juice and sweet Lebanese olive oil. All finely chopped (or diced, in the case of the tomatoes).
tabbouleh is – or was – a seasonal dish. Each home had its own maskabeh: a plot of land to grow parsley and mint. Later, with urbanization, the maskabeh became a pot kept on the balcony in the city. Springtime brings the heat, flowers, good weather… and fresh products, like parsley.
Spring days are thus the best time to enjoy tabbouleh. Now that, alas, there are no longer seasonal products (parsley and mint – and all the rest – can be found all year round) we still wait for the good mountain parsley (bàladi parsley) in order to make really excellent tabbouleh.
The first jammeh (harvest or cutting) traditionally yields the best parsley – tender, fresh and flavoursome – and this used to be a kind of ritual.
There is nothing to do but wait for this first jammeh; unless, like in the old days, you prepare a good winter tabbouleh with the available seasonal ingredients. Plenty of bulgar wheat (even the large variety, which needs to soak longer than the finer sort), sprouting lentils, dried mint, all dressed with sommag (sumach, Rhus coriaria L.), olive oil, salt and pepper, and eaten with parboiled cabbage leaves.
Going back to tabbouleh: first you must clean the parsley, making bunches as large as the palm of your hand. This is the typical Sunday morning ritual: going to pick parsley and a little mint, sitting in the long-awaited spring sunshine (with a straw hat!) to clean the parsley and strip off the mint leaves. Then you must wash the bunches and leave them to dry before you chop them.
There is only one way to chop the parsley: finely. Hold the bunch tightly under the palm of your hand on the chopping board, and chop with a sharp knife. The blade should cut the parsley just once – never twice otherwise it will be fine, certainly, but it will lose its juiciness and appear crushed. So some skill is required, and this can only be acquired with time. I also know women who chop parsley very finely by holding the bunch in one hand and using a short-bladed knife, without actually cutting.
Then the mint: pick some leaves, chop them finely and put them under a little of the chopped parsley, so they do not turn black. Then cut the tomatoes into tiny cubes and very finely chop the onions, and wipe them with some salt and pepper.
Now for an ingredient of a certain calibre – or rather, importance, since it is actually rather small in calibre – none other than fine bulgar wheat.
Although, as I have explained, no variations of tabbouleh are permitted, personal preferences may be respected – and each person, each family has their own. Or rather, each mother has her own. Some concern the dressing: plenty of lemon juice, for example, or just a few drops. The same can apply to oil (only olive oil, of course) and tomatoes. And in particular, the quantity of bulgar – which may be plentiful or just a pinch. It can be soaked beforehand or crunchy, mixed with the other ingredients at the last minute.
Personally I used to prefer the ‘crunchy’ version of tabbouleh, before I discovered that soaked bulgar is more nourishing and easier to digest. The recipe that follows is therefore for ‘my’ tabbouleh… since everyone has their own personal recipe, within the boundaries of tradition.
Lastly I would add that tabbouleh is served with leaves of Romaine lettuce or white cabbage or better still, with new vine leaves, still fresh and tender. On Sundays my mother loved to serve her tabbouleh with a bunch of green pepper leaves.
The unchangeable rules of tabbouleh:
No tabbouleh without plenty of parsley.
The only variety of parsley allowed in tabbouleh is common flat-leaved parsley.
Only bulgar wheat can be used (pre-steamed, cracked wheat) and no other cereal.
tabbouleh and couscous do not go together – they are complete strangers.
There is no room for shrimp, or other fish or indeed any animal product in tabbouleh.
Variations and interpretations are of course possible, but for the love of tabbouleh….call them something else.
My recipe, for 4 people:
2 bunches of common parsley (two good-sized bunches about 150g each)
a small bunch of mint (about 75g)
4 spring onions
1 large ripe tomato
1/2 glass fine bulgar wheat
the juice of 2 lemons
1/3 glass olive oil
salt and pepper
Romaine lettuce or white cabbage leaves to eat the tabbouleh with
Clean the parsley and make it into bunches. Strip off the mint leaves. Wash the parsley, mint, tomato and onion, and leave them to dry well.
For a non-crunchy bulgar version, wash the bulgar wheat, leave to drain, pour into a bowl and just cover with water to soak.
Dice the tomato and add to the bulgar wheat.
Finely chop the parsley, then the mint, and mix with the bulgar and tomato. Finely chop the onions, rub with salt and pepper, then add to the rest of the ingredients.
Dress the tabbouleh with lemon juice, olive oil and salt as necessary. The tabbouleh should be juicy, without swimming in liquid. It is a fresh, slightly acidic salad, without extremes of flavour. Serve with fresh Romaine lettuce leaves or tender, crisp white cabbage leaves.
This salad must be served with another typical Lebanese speciality: a glass of arak, an alcoholic drink flavoured with aniseed.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor toSaveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.
Adapted by Finouk