Its origins are in what we today call Lebanon. It contains flat-leaf parsley, bulgur and tomato. Therein lies virtually all of what is agreed upon when it comes to tabbouleh.
If we are to believe Claudia Roden, and there is every reason to given she’s dedicated her life to Middle Eastern food and food culture, tabbouleh was originally served as a meze in regions producing arak, the Arab aniseed spirit. It soon became popular across most of the Levent. And, a little later, across much of the western world too.
Roden also enlightens us on the biggest disagreement when it comes to tabbouleh. Is it a bulgur salad or a herb salad?
To most in the west, it appears, tabbouleh is a bulgur salad with specks of parsley. In the Middle East, its homeland, it’s the exact opposite: a vivid green herb salad with specks of bulgur. In fact, the early versions of tabbouleh were rich in bulgur, providing a filling bite alongside the arak with which it was served. It is only over time that the herbs came to take on increasing importance, culminating in the modern version seen across the Middle East today. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that “western tabbouleh” has its roots in the original tabbouleh – though today it bears more resemblance to kisir, the Turkish bulgur salad also thought to originate from tabbouleh.
It is as a herb salad that I know tabbouleh best. And that’s how I like it. Fresh flavour from flat-leaf parsley, a hint of mint, a little acidity from the tomato and texture from the bulgur. Sometimes spices such as allspice and cinnamon are also added, but I find it better without. Pure and simple.
Another thing many people seem not to be aware of is that even in its homelands, tabbouleh is subject to a wide array of variations. Anissa Helou’s book Modern Meze includes a couple of them. one substituting cabbage and extra mint for the parsley, another rice for bulgur.
This version has a less dramatic twist. With #cookforsyria ongoing, I have followed inspiration from Norwegian food writer Andreas Viestad’s recent column on the Syrian cookbook Flavours of Aleppo (link in Norwegian) and added pomegranate. Apparently, this is fairly customary in Syria. And what could possibly be better than substituting pomegranate for some of the tomato now that the markets are flush with juicy pomegranate and tomatoes are out of season?
A proper tabbouleh should be very finely chopped – but not crushed. the herbs should remain crispy. It is therefore important to use the sharpest knife you’ve got, and remember to allow the knife to glide a little instead of pushing through the herbs – it will make them mushy. There are a lot of herbs in this recipe, so do them a little at a time. It is said that a young girl’s ability to chop herbs for tabbouleh was an important quality as a potential housewife in these regions. While perhaps one would wish such sayings had no roots in reality, it does suggest just how important both tabbouleh and the chopping of herbs for it is in the Middle East.
The bulgur used in this salad is the fine grain type, sold as köftelik bulgur if your market stocks Turkish brands. The grains are so small they don’t need to be pre-cooked. If you can’t find it, regular coarse bulgur is also fine but needs to be cooked first, either boiled in water or steeped in boiling water until al dente.
Tabbouleh is excellent if you’re serving meze, or as a side to meat or fish. The clean flavours make it a great palate cleanser. Serves 4-6.
Tabbouleh with pomegranate
- 25 g fine bulgur
- 150 g cherry tomates, cut into very small cubes
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 200 g flat-leaf parsley, thick stalks removed, finely chopped (c. 85 g net weight)
- 25 g mint, leaves only, finely chopped
- 2-3 spring onions, finely chopped or 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- seeds of 1/2 pomegranate
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- lettuce leaves (gem lettuce is perfect), to serve
- salt and pepper
- Mix the bulgur, tomato, lemon juice and a little seasoning. Set aside until the bulgur has softened, 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the herbs.
- Mix the herbs, onion, pomegranate and bulgur and tomato mixture. Add pomegranate molasses and extra virgin olive oil and mix again. Season.
- Serve immediately using small lettuce leaves as bowls, or serve in a bowl with lettuce leaves on the side.
- For a more traditional variety, double the tomato and lemon juice and skip the pomegranate seeds and pomegranate molasses.
- If you like, you can add some ground allspice and cinnamon for a more spiced flavour.