When I think of Lebanese cuisine, for some reason, fattoush and tabbouleh – both fresh mezze (appetizer) salads – pop into my mind first, and then the host of delicious staples such as savory lamb kabobs, vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, and juicy kibbeh follow after. But for some reason, the salads are the most memorable for me, an Egyptian with a love for all things fresh. That’s probably because the ‘creative salad’ repertoire is somewhat lacking in Egypt, with a ‘house salad’ – often solely made up of succulent tomatoes and crisp cucumbers – being the salad of choice daily in most Egyptian households, only to be ‘dressed up’ with arugula or zesty onions when the mood strikes (or when they’re in season).
I remember the first time I tried tabbouleh at a restaurant in Egypt as a child. My taste buds were pleasantly surprised to taste a salad made with zesty parsley and fresh mint, in addition to my all-time favorite ripe tomatoes. That was also the first time I had tasted the cold version of dolmades, or vegetarian stuffed grape leaves. After tasting the goodness of freshly chopped greens and bulgur, I registered it in my mind as one of the most interesting salads out there. I’m convinced that it’s one of the best ways to use fresh parsley in the kitchen, which just so happens to be rich in vitamins A, C and K, and packed with antioxidant-rich flavonoids. And to think that Americans dismiss parsley as mere garnish! This is why when I see tabbouleh salad in the Whole Foods deli section, I inwardly smirk – it’s full of bulgur (sometimes even couscous is used instead) and has little to no parsley. That’s not authentic. Traditionally prepared tabbouleh makes parsley the star of the dish, where the flavorful leafy green dominates. Keep that in mind next time you think about buying it instead of making it at home. In this guest post written for midEATS, my half Lebanese- half Egyptian friend Debby shares an authentic Lebanese recipe for tabbouleh, and gives us a little background of how she sees cooking as an irreplaceable lesuirely family ritual.
~ Heba of midEATS
Fresh Tabbouleh: A Lebanese Staple
by Debby Naguib
Tabbouleh (sometimes called tabbouli) is considered an important national dish in Lebanese cuisine, and is also popular in other Arab countries in the Levant. (Did you know that the Lebanese observe a National Tabbouleh Day in Lebanon? Yep, I wasn’t kidding in the bit about it being a national dish). The word tabbouleh comes from the Arabic word ‘mtabeleh‘, which means ‘seasoned’, implying that the dish comes alive through the flavorful seasonings.
Though the nuanced ways of making tabbouleh vary based on region and family tradition, it always includes the colors of the Lebanese flag – green, white and red. You may be surprised to learn that the original tabbouleh recipe has been passed down for many generations, and dates back to ancient Phoenician culture. Today, the age-old recipe for tabbouleh is being resurrected as a ‘superfood’ in many health food stores throughout the United States, and all over the world as a healthy complete meal. Traditionally served as a part of the mezze (appetizer), tabbouleh can be eaten all year round. There are also different ways of eating it. You can simply use a fork or scoop it up by hand in small amounts with pieces of cut-up romaine lettuce.
Tabbouleh is traditionally made with soaked bulgur (“burghul” in Arabic), which is made from wheat. Bulgar is thought to be man’s oldest recorded use of wheat: “Bulgur is made by soaking and cooking the whole wheat kernel, drying it and then removing part of the bran and cracking the remaining kernel into small pieces” (Purcell Mountains Farms). As for the greens, tomatoes and onions used: the fresher the better. If you can get your hands on locally-produced organic ingredients (if from your backyard, even better!) , your tabbouleh will surely be more flavorful and nutritious. Opt for the fresh mint, if possible, and make sure to refrigerate the mixture for a couple of hours before seasoning it so that the flavors meld together without letting the tomatoes lose their juice.
Tabbouleh is the ever-present dish at family gatherings, and I remember tasting the subtle differences in the way different family members prepared it – a little extra parsley here, an abundance of fresh mint there. The variety got me attuned to how even the same recipe can communicate different responses to one’s taste buds – playing with the proportions and omissions/additions of spices can do wonders!
I remember visiting Lebanon and falling in love with its gorgeous landscpe, rich history and diverse population – a mosaic of peoples of different cultures, customs, and religions. But the most memorable times I spent in Lebanon were in the kitchen, watching the women in my family work together to make a meal for the family from scratch. I discovered that in Lebanon, the chief cook is considered the Queen of her home and her ‘throne’ is essentially in the kitchen. No sooner is breakfast done than preparation for lunch has begun, and then again for dinner. To the homemakers however, this is a labor of love. Even today, my mother prides herself in her cooking, and the finished product is always a reflection of both her creativity and her knowledge of traditional food preparation methods. Mealtime in Lebanon is a leisurely and happy occasion where the family is brought together in thanksgiving. The typical saying by the Lebanese people upon completion of a meal is: “Sahtayn!” This means in English “Twice the health to you!” So this is my wish to you as well: May you enjoy many happy hours of cooking and “Sahtayn!”
Traditional Lebanese Tabbouleh with Bulgur
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Keywords: raw appetizer salad side snack low-carb nut-free soy-free vegan vegetarian parsley kale bulgur cracked wheat Middle Eastern Lebanese spring summer
Ingredients (Serves 3-6)
- 3/4 cup whole-grain bulgur (crushed wheat)
- 2 large bunches of parsley (approximately 1 qt. when finely chopped)
- 1 cup finely chopped fresh mint or 1/4 to 1/3 cup dried mint if you don’t have fresh mint
- 1/2 bunch scallions, with green ends, finely chopped
- 2 large, ripe organic tomatoes, finely chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons unrefined mineral salt
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
(1) Rinse bulgur, place in hot water for 30 minutes, and then drain and squeeze excess water out. Place in a large mixing bowl.
(2) Finely chop the parsley, mint, green onions, and tomatoes.
(3) Put tomatoes directly on top of the burghul. Then, add chopped parsley over the tomatoes and do not mix yet.
(4) Add the onions and mint in a layer on top.
(5) Cover the bowl and refrigerate 1-2 hours ahead of serving. Then five to ten minutes before serving , add olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cinnamon and toss thoroughly to mix.
About the Cook
Deborah Naguib was born in Chicago, Illinois. She studied International Business and Economics and a received her Master’s Degree in Adult Education. Debby is passionate about charity and civic affairs and is active in the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, where she volunteers to help needy children and mothers get the healthcare that they need. For several years, she enjoyed teaching international students and working in the business world. Thanks to her Lebanese mother, who is highly talented in the kitchen, Debby has developed a love for Lebanese cuisine, and till now follows her mother’s idea of cooking, which involves creatively (and spontaneously) adding a “pinch of this” and a “dash of that” – the end result is always a success!