An authentic Arab tabbouleh isn’t the same side dish that is commonly served in America. For some reason the American version got loaded up with cracked wheat (Bulgar wheat) and a little bit of parsley. The authentic Arab tabbouleh is mostly parsley with a little bit of Bulgar. You can probably understand that this is a significantly different texture and taste. You would even use it to accompany a meal in a very different way. Arab tabbouleh owes its bright flavors to not only the parsley, but to fresh squeezed lemon juice, fresh mint, onion, and even jalapeno pepper.
My wife and her family originated from the Middle East and the recipe we’re trying today is blessed by the comments of “this tastes just like my mother’s!” My sister and mother in law, who are exceptional Middle Eastern cooks, recommended to us a book on Arab cooking that was written by a Lebanese woman, May Bsisu, called “The Arab Table.” May has created a true treasure by painstakingly writing down family recipes in English and English units of measure. My sister in law still uses this cookbook even while living in the Middle East.
If you’re interested in adding this book to your collection, you can find it on Amazon at:
This is a representation of some of the ingredients that go into this tabbouleh. The quantities are not accurately represented here as I was just trying to get most of the ingredients on a board to look at. We also include mint in our recipe (not shown).
The recipe and adjustments I’ve made call for:
1/2 lb chopped yellow onion. This was a little over half of a large yellow onion.
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup fine bulgar wheat
1 lb of tomatoes – About 3 vine ripened tomatoes
6 packed cups of chopped parsley – In the photo above there are two bunches. You can get a little more than a cup of chopped parsley from one bundle. I used five bundles to get six cups chopped.
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint (spearmint is recommended although the packages I buy just say “mint”…so I’m not sure what I’m getting)
1/2 tsp finely chopped jalapeno pepper
3/8 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp salt
Except for the mint, the board below represents what all of the ingredients look like after being measure and prepared.
A word on Bulgar wheat. Bulgar wheat comes in “sizes” that describe how well ground the wheat is. Fine, medium, and large are normal sizes you might find. This recipe calls for fine Bulgar. It might look really small when it’s in the bag, but it does expand when you add water and it needs to be soaked. The way to do this is to put the wheat in a small bowl and then cover it just over the top of the wheat with water. Stir it up a bit so that all of the wheat gets moist. The water will soak into the wheat making it soft and it will expand. Let this sit for about 15 minutes. After it has soaked up as much as it’s going to, pour off any loose liquid. Then with another small bowl, fill your hand with a handful of the wheat and literally squeeze out any remaining water into the sink. Some of the wheat will be lost when you squeeze, but there will be enough left. Drop the squeezed Bulgar into the other bowl. Repeat until you have squeezed all the liquid from the soaked bulgar.
Add the ground pepper to the chopped onions and mix it up. The onions give the pepper a way to take a ride throughout the mix requiring less mixing overall.
Pull the leaves from the parsley stems for about five bundles of parsley. Don’t worry if you have some of the tender stem near the leaf, but get most of the tougher and thicker part removed. This is a good time to recruit someone in your family to help as it’s easily the most time consuming part of making tabbouleh.
You can use a knife to chop through all the leaves after you’re done, but it will be quicker to use a food processor if you have one. Fill the processor bowl about 2/3 to 3/4 full. Replace the lid and pulse until it is finely chopped. For my old Cuisinart it took about 15-18 one second pulses to get it to the right consistency and each bowl looked very similar to the one below. There is enough parsley in this recipe that you’ll need to do the processing in batches. I pulled the proceeds out of the processor into a measuring cup and then when I knew how much I had I moved the contents of the measuring cup to a prep bowl and continued.
Chop the tomatoes and mint. Squeeze or ream the lemons and measure out the salt. A tsp of finely chopped jalapeno is called for. This is a very small part of your average jalapeno and it seems like a bit of a waste. My wife does not remember jalapeno even being in her mom’s recipe. I dutifully finely chopped a small piece of the jalapeno to get the tsp the recipe called for.
In a large mixing bowl, add the chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onions, and jalapeno and toss together.
Then add the lemon juice and olive oil. Mix well until all the ingredients are coated. You can add the lemon juice a little at a time until you get the tartness that you want. The original recipe called for 1/2 cup of lemon juice, but in my first run at this it tasted too tart for even those who have tasted authentic tabbouleh. So we cut this back to 3/8 cup of lemon juice and I added it all in.
The recipe says to add the bulgar at the same time. But the issue of too much bulgar is something to consider. For any ingredient that is very small, if there is a question as to how much of it you want then it’s best to reserve it and add a little at a time until you get the look and texture that you want. I added it until my wife said, “That’s what my mom’s looks like”, and I had a bit left over. And that produced the photo below. As you can see, the bulgar is just a small part of the color and texture of this dish as compared to the stereotypical tabbouleh in the US.
Tabbouleh is one of those dishes that is similar to spaghetti sauce in that there are so many flavors that it’s often times good to let it just sit and marinate for a few hours. Tabbouleh is still very good a day after you’ve made it because the flavors can continue to meld. If you have a few hours then it’s best to give it some time for the flavors to come together and then add the Bulgar and salt at the very end. If you salt it right away you might be reacting to flavors that will mellow over time requiring less salt than you might think. I used a tbsp of Kosher salt.
And there you have a wonderful authentic Middle Eastern Tabbouleh.
What have I learned:
- Middle Eastern tabbouleh’s main ingredient is parsley, not Bulgar wheat as many of us in the US have thought.
- Hold the salt and Bulgar wheat until right before you serve as you’ll get the best texture and most accurate taste to adjust with the salt.
- This can be a great vegetarian dish by itself, but don’t be afraid to make it the one and only side dish too. Many people will also spoon this into cabbage leaves, Romaine lettuce leaves, and even endive leaves as a small and very bright tasting appetizer.