I seldom shared with my classmates or my neighborhood pals about what I had for dinner the night before. I would listen to their exclamations about Nona’s Italian Meatballs and Sauce, or mom’s Corned Beef and Cabbage, or Aunt Mariel’s Enchiladas. I knew my classmates and friends would be able to pinpoint on a globe the location of Italy or Ireland or Mexico, but I had a sneaky suspicion that Lebanon would be a mystery for them, and I was reticent enough not to answer their questions or to listen to their jibes. I was sure none of my friends just ate salad for a main course (along with olives and Hummus and Baba Ghanoush), and I was almost certain that tabouli was unchartered food territory. In my naivete, I believed unless you were Lebanese, the odds were pretty good that you would not appreciate the dish. I was all right with this; it could remain my family’s delicious secret.
But nothing remains secret for long and tabouli was discovered. Over the past thirty years or so, Middle Eastern food has been embraced by the American diet. Tabouli can be found packaged in ready-to eat cartons in delicatessens, in markets, and even in convenience stores (In fact, when the tabouli craze first hit, a few of my entrepreneurial cousins took the plunge and created a tabouli company). Tabouli is an everyday option at buffets and is offered at high end restaurants. It is making is a “Like” on YouTube; the salad has achieved 5 stars on popular television cooking shows, and it has been hashed and rehashed in food magazines. Food bloggers have explored the etymology of the word, have written essays on tabouli’s origins, and have argued over ingredients. Recipes abound and the salad has been transformed into many different options along with many substitutions: Whole Wheat Couscous Tabouli, Quinoa Tabouli, Cilantro Tabouli, Spinach Tabouli, Mexican Tabouli, Faro Tabouli, Double Mint Barley Tabouli, etc. Need I continue? The possibilities could fill this page, but why, I wonder, would anyone want to mess with perfection? I admit I have become a food purist.
Lebanese cuisine does include a few alternative tabouli dishes, but I will argue that green tabouli is the standard. Traditionally, tabouli was a summertime dish in the Middle East, and it was made with the parsley, mint, lettuce, tomato, and spring onion grown in home gardens tended by the women of the house. According to my Situs (grandmothers), tabouli was a lunch time dish enjoyed by the women in the villages. Lemon trees (and olive trees) were in abundance in the mountainside villages of Lebanon, and, along with burghul (crushed wheat), the ingredients were easily on hand. Though a family might make some slight change to what went into the tabouli (peas vs cucumbers vs pomegranate seeds), and what spices to include (from cumin to cayenne to cinnamon to allspice), the root recipe was the same.
Tabouli is a tricky dish. One wrong move and the result could be green sludge. Done correctly, the salad is a symphony of aroma and vision and taste. Neither my Situs, nor my aunts, nor my mother believed in giving formal tutorials on how to make Lebanese food; but children could watch. Family gatherings meant a houseful of relatives with tables and counter spaces ladened with food platters and a kitchen full of undaunted cooks, but I never saw any recipe books or measuring cups or spoons being used. They tasted and let us taste; perhaps a bit more salt or a dash more cinnamon, but for the most part, they just knew when enough was enough. This culinary feat held true for any other Lebanese dish they would make—whether it be Ftayir, or Kibbi, or Mihshi Waraq Inab or Djaj Mhammar. They were fearless, these women. Making tabouli, my wonderful Aunt Em would declare, is a labor of love, and no matter who the cook was or what dish was made, a silent prayer was offered, asking for the food to be blessed.
I wish I could say that I never lost hold of my heritage and its food, but as I moved into adulthood, I seldom if ever cooked Lebanese dishes. I was more intent on cooking what my friends were making: crab stuffed mushrooms, fondues and quiches, crepes and Jell-O-molds; the list could go on and on, but I was a so-so cook. Cooking took a back seat for other pursuits, and for a long while, it was a necessary chore rather than a labor of love.
I always had my situs, my aunts, and my mother to fall back on to cook Lebanese food. As the years passed, and as my beloved family members began to dwindle, I discovered just how much I missed being in the kitchen watching them make Lebanese food. Too soon, I thought, I would be an elder, but would I be able to pass on the food recipes and traditions I grew up with? I wanted to reconnect with the tastes and the aromas of my food upbringing, but it took me quite a while to recall the nuances of Lebanese cooking.
Once I began my journey back, what better way to start than with my favorite dish, tabouli, and then I slowly built up my repertoire of other Lebanese dishes. At times, I tried too hard; other times I tried to cut corners. I made green sludge a few times. I burnt the bread and managed to curdle the labneh. I even bought a cookbook. How sad is that? I could well imagine my beloved cooks were chuckling and shaking their heads.
Still, I persisted. Sometimes a person needs to make mistakes to remember the right way. The tabouli lessons I had absorbed all those years ago as I watched my dear, fearless cooks cut and chop and mix, had not been completely forgotten, just buried for a time. After a while, I knew what to do.
I am always suspicious of recipes that mark tabouli as easy to make. The ingredients are not complex, but tabouli is time intensive. Be prepared to wash and rinse the parsley several times to get rid of the sand and dirt. Remove the large stems and place the parsley in a colander to drain.
Please do not use a food processor to chop the parsley. Too often, the green sludge occurs.
- Wash, rinse, and then drain the burghul. Place in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. While you are chopping and adding the ingredients, the wheat will soften.
- Next, my family added frozen peas. Add to the burghul in the mixing bowl.
- Finely chop the parsley and add to the mixing bowl. Dice the tomatoes, finely chop the spring onion and if you are using fresh mint, chop and add to the bowl. If fresh mint is not available, dried mint is fine—start with a small amount, and then add if necessary.
- Add the lemon juice (please use fresh), olive oil, salt, and pepper, add the cinnamon and allspice. Mix well to incorporate all the ingredients and taste!
- Refrigerate for a few hours to allow time for the spices and lemon and oil to blend.
- Give the tabouli a good tossing before serving and please taste—one more time.
- Serve with lettuce leaves.
Please Note: I tried my best to convert my recipe into measurements. I will leave it up to you to taste and look and smell the tabouli—I think you just might surprise yourself.
2 big bunches of curly parsley
¼ cup fine burghul
2 tablespoons or more of olive oil
1-2 large tomato
1/3 cup frozen peas
2-3 spring onions, finely cut
Juice of 2-3 lemons (please taste!)
5-7 (approximately) fresh mint leaves (chopped) or use dried mint, approximately 1/4 cup.
2-3 teaspoons of kosher salt (taste and adjust)
Black pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Sahtayn! (If I remember correctly, sahtayn means I wish you double health).
Penny Freel was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, Japan (1995-2003) where she co-chaired the Freshman English Department and taught American Literature, Film Studies, and Communication courses. From 2006 to 2018, she was a Lecturer at SUNY New Paltz. Now she tends to her garden, her writing, her cooking, and her family. She and Mr. Freel divide their time between New York and Florida.