Tabbouleh, the unique salad of fresh parsley, bulgur wheat and green onions, is one of the most familiar Arab dishes in the United States.
It's gaining ground on restaurant menus and even in supermarket salad bars.
Having enjoyed tabbouleh for years in the homes of Arab friends, I was curious to learn the secret of perfect tabbouleh from experts. Not surprisingly, the varying opinions reflect the character of the Middle East itself, in that each person considers himself or herself to be the sole custodian of cultural heritage. And each is certain his or hers is the one, the only authentic tabbouleh. It's a lot like Americans and potato salad.
"The secret is to add a handful of fresh chopped mint," confides Joumana Bendak, who is from Lebanon.
"Let it sit for exactly half an hour before you eat it, and be sure it contains an abundance of tomatoes," says Aida Tabarra, from Beirut.
Bilal Itani, a Lebanese man, disagrees: "Too many tomatoes will unbalance the flavor."
It is clear that each cook follows techniques and recipes passed down for generations. But the principal ingredients of this Syrian/Lebanese staple remain unchallenged. A perfect tabbouleh must include fluffy morsels of bulgur wheat tossed in a penetrating minty lemon dressing with bits of juicy ripe tomatoes and finely minced parsley.
The bulgur wheat used in tabbouleh is an earthy home product that has been boiled until it is about to crack open, then set out to dry on sheets in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Bulgur is found at ethnic groceries, either in large self-service barrels or in packages prepared by the grocer. "For tabbouleh, use only grains labeled No. 1, the smallest size," says Yousef Sukkar, a Syrian who owns an international food store. "This size grain needs to be softened in liquid but does not require cooking."
Never substitute cracked wheat, which is an uncooked and dissimilar grain. Similarly, avoid the bags and boxes labeled "tabbouleh mix" in some supermarkets; they contain irregularly sized bits of bulgur and a few flecks of dried parsley. Some of the larger grains won't absorb enough liquid and remain crunchy enough to break a tooth.
A harmonious balance of ingredients is essential for this dish, but proportions remain a matter of taste, and Arabs continue to debate the topic.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup bulgur, fine grain (No. 1)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
pinch Middle Eastern red pepper (optional)
1 small clove garlic, crushed with salt (optional)
1 large bunch parsley, preferably Italian
2 medium tomatoes, minced to about 1/3 -inch cubes
4 green onions, minced
10 fresh mint leaves, chopped, or 1 tablespoon dried mint
2/3 cup olive oil
Rinse the bulgur thoroughly and drain. Cover with lemon juice, stir in the red pepper and garlic; set aside. The age and type of wheat will determine soaking time: Usually 15 to 40 minutes is sufficient. The grains should be uniformly tender.
Clean the parsley and dry completely. Pinch off the leafy branches and pulse small amounts briefly and lightly in a food xTC processor to produce pieces about 1/4 -inch in diameter. Repeat until all parsley is minced.
Combine all ingredients; toss to mix well. Set aside for an hour or two to blend flavors. Taste and add more lemon juice and olive oil if desired.
Note: Arabs frequently serve this salad on a platter with a small side tray heaped with the crisp inner leaves of romaine lettuce. The lettuce is torn and used as a spoon to scoop the salad from the serving dish.
Per serving: calories 419, fat 36 g, no cholesterol, sodium 279 mg, 76 percent calories from fat