It is impossible to do a blog prominently featuring Arabic food without an entry on tabbouleh, particularly in summer, when the never-ending heat waves make light, cold food a thing of comfort. Unfortunately for me, tabbouleh as it is commonly eaten these days—heavy on the leaves, light on the bulgur—contains a lot of parsley, which I consider to be a blight in the world of greens.
My first memories of parsley center around trips to fancy restaurants like Denny’s and IHOP. In my family, eating out was a real rarity, usually reserved for birthdays, when we were treated to Happy Meals at McDonald’s. Dining at sit-down restaurants did not happen—with four kids, there was the cost to consider, although I suspect it was less about the money than the potential stress and embarrassment to my parents of trying to keep us all from fighting and crawling under the table. Still, we did occasionally have “formal” meals, and for some reason they always came with a perky sprig of parsley precariously perched on the edge of the plate, or sticking up from the top of my sandwich like a miniature tree. This being the era of starving Ethiopian children, I was well accustomed to the idea of eating everything on my plate and being grateful for it, but parsley…well, it was flavorless and often had a weird twiggy texture that completely put me off.
Since then, parsley has been in my very small category of inedible things, the garnish of sloppy chefs. So when it comes to tabbouleh, which is about ¾ chopped parsley, I am saved only by the fact that everything else in the salad has a lot of flavor and provides some texture. Truth be told, I like tabbouleh as long as I don’t think about its origins while I’m eating it. I try to console myself with the fact that parsley is pretty healthy; at least, the women here are always telling me how “beneficial” it is, and a quick Google search praises parsley as “hormone balancing,” “immune-enhancing,” and “a tonic for the blood vessels,” not to mention that it includes actual vitamins and minerals. Not too shabby; perhaps high schools should consider including in their cafeteria menus…
So, I eat tabbouleh. Here’s a basic recipe, although if you’re interested in something a little less traditional, check out Taste of Beirut for a variety of more exotic interpretations.
1/2 cup fine- or medium-ground bulgur
Juice of 1-2 lemons, to taste
4 firm ripe tomatoes, diced
Salt and pepper
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 cups flat-leaf parsley (I think it’s often called “Italian parsley” in America), very finely chopped by hand*
2/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1-2 small diced cucumbers (optional, I like to add them)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Bibb lettuce or Romaine hearts (to be used instead of utensils)
Soak the bulgur in lots of fresh cold water for 10 minutes. Rinse in a colander and press the excess water out, then put the bulgur in a bowl with the lemon juice and tomatoes to soak for 30 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients (except lettuce) and mix gently. A traditional way of eating tabbouleh is to scoop it up with lettuce leaves.
*It’s important to do the parsley and mint by hand, with a very sharp knife, so that you don’t wind up with bruised leaves. I tried it once in my food processor, which admittedly is not top-of-the-line, and ended up with a very unsatisfactory mess of smashed leaves.