There are many reasons that I love Mediterranean cooking. One of the things that I like most is the variety of flavors and approaches used to prepare similar foods. It allows me to become an ‘explorer’. I can explore new regions and new flavor profiles. I even get to discover complete new dishes relying on otherwise familiar ingredients. A great example of this is the Turkish bulgur Salad, Kisir. When you first look at the ingredient list for Kisir, it may seem very much like Taboulla. They are enough alike that you might call these salads ‘cousins’. But Kisir is a different salad, and delicious in its own right.
I’ll get back to how I came to discover kisir and the other reasons I love it. But there is one reason I should mention up front that may be a deal maker for some. Kisir is a no cook meal. That’s right. No cooking required. At most, you may heat the water to prepare bulgur. Even that isn’t entirely necessary. All of the vegetables are added uncooked. A no cook delight!
Not only is Kisir ‘no cooking required’, it comes together quickly. It does benefit from ‘sitting’ a while before eating it, but that allows you to make it early, and have dinner on time. Kisir is the perfect accompaniment to a weeknight dinner. We often have ours with koftas, like in the image at the top of the page. It doesn’t have to be a side though. Kisir also makes a great meal on its own as well. I can also sometimes be found wrapped in grape leaves as a dolmas or in lettuce leaves.
One of my ‘bucket list’ travel goals is to visit Turkey. I have not yet been, but truly want to travel to this ancient country. Not only do I want to visit Istanbul and its great sights like the Hagia Sophia and the Iznik Museum. I also would love to drive along the Mediterranean Coast from Izmir to Hatay. Perhaps spending time in seaside villages along the way. I have enjoyed such slow travel in other Mediterranean countries. Turkey can certainly add to legacy.
Hatay is the region in Turkey in the most northeastern of the Mediterranean. It is here where the Sea turns and starts its eastern shores and where Turkey meets Syria. I share all this because the first time I ever learned about Hatay was also the first time I tried Kisir. Both came to me in the excellent cookbook Istanbul and Beyond by Robyn Eckhardt. The book is an excellent tour of cooking from across Turkey, from Istanbul to its eastern edges. The foods have strong influences from Mediterranean cuisine, as well as Persian cuisines. This reflects Turkey’s place in the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean.
Eckhardt associates Kisir with the Hatay region, which neighbors Syria. Given the geographic crossroads, the similarities between kisir and tabbouleh are no surprise. Eckhardt describes Kisir as “tabbouleh’s prettier, gutsier cousin”. That is a fairly accurate description. Both dishes are based on the grain bulgur. Both typically include chopped mint, parsley, and scallions.
What is bulgur?
If you are not familiar with bulgur, here is a quick primer. Bulgur comes from whole wheat kernels, most typically durum wheat. The kernels are parboiled, dried and cracked resulting in bulgur. It is sold in a range of ‘grinds’ from ‘fine’ to ‘coarse’ and ‘extra coarse’. Fine is what is called for in this recipe. Fine bulgur is sometime referred to #1 bulgur. All my local grocery stores carry it, generally in the same area as the rice and other grains.
When you make kisir, you want to be sure that you are using the fine grain bulgur. It softenes easier and is easier to work with. An a quick note about technique. In this recipe, it effectively calls for ‘triple rinsing’ the bulgur. This comes directly from Eckherts recipe, but I have to say, I find the salad better when I do it. I have ‘shortcutted’ around this step (and you can to) without too much problem. But I recommend you don’t skip it because the salad is has a much ‘softer’ mouth feel.
Bulger is very healthy and is packed with fiber, and protein. It is, however, a member of the ‘wheat’ family, so those with a gluten sensitivity need to be aware. If you need to make a gluten free version of Kisir, you can substitute for the bulgur. Quinoa is a common replacement. I’ve never used quinoa with kisir. However, I’ve made quinoa tabbouleh for catering events. It is a pretty good alternative.
So what makes Kisir prettier and gutsier?
The first thing that you notice that makes this bulgur salad different from tabbouleh is its color. It is bright red, which is a result of the treatment of the bulgur. When I say treatment, I mean the addition of tomato and pepper pastes directly to the grains of bulgur. The ‘rubbed in’ paste changes the color of the bulgur and gently softens the grains. The addition of tomato and red pepper paste turn the bulgur grains a bright red.
The ‘gutsier’ part comes from the addition of intense flavors. They come by way of the pepper paste and pomegranate molasses. The pepper paste can be mild or hot and obviously the salad will be gutsier with hot pepper. I use a sweet pepper paste so that the Kisir is more broadly acceptable around a table where not everyone likes heat. It is easy enough to add at the table if you find it essential.
The pomegranate molasses, which will add a hint of pleasant sourness, also adds a flair to Kisir. This is not the first time that pomegranate molasses has made an appearance on mezze & tapas. I’ve used it on koftas, beets, and a roasted carrot salad. It regularly finds its way into other meals we eat that haven’t made it to the blog (yet!). In my Kisir, the sour matches with the sweet of the pepper to create a real flavorful and pleasant salad
After trying the Kisir from the Eckherd book, I’ve looked at and tried several versions that I’ve found on the web. The differences generally involve the selections of vegetables included in the salad. Parsley is common, and almost omitted. Mint is common, but not universal. The same is true with tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Of course, you can see that this collection of vegetables is very close to those in tabbouleh. But they are different salads.
Other ingredients that make an appearance include garlic, walnuts, hazelnuts, banana peppers, bell peppers, dill pickles, carrots, edive, lettuce and grape leaves. Additional herbs and spices range from cumin, to dill, to pepper flakes to sumac. There are a wide range choices to include in Kisir. Of course, that means you can customize it to suit your own taste. Perhaps you can make your own additions to the salad!
Kisir is absolutely worth giving a try. It is easy to make and easy to adapt. The flavors are delightful and refreshing. Kisir is perfect as a side or a main dish. There really is no reason not to give it a try. I think once you give it a try, you will be hooked! Happy eating!
Kisir – Turkish Bulgur & Herb Salad
- 1 cup bulgur fine
- 2 tsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp sweet Biber Salçasi Turkish Red Pepper Paste
- 3 scallions whites and greens, thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic finely minced
- ½ cup parsley finely chopped
- ¼ cup mint finely chopped
- ½ cup hot house cucumber seeded and small dice
- 2 TBS pomegranate molasses
- 1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes optional
- Place bulgur in a medium bowl and add enough cool water to cover
- Gently stir the grains of bulgur with a fork
- Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the bulgur and return to the medium bowl
- Repeat adding water, stirring, and straining until the water is clear, not cloudy
- When water is clear, return the wet grains of bulgur to the bowl and set aside for 30 minutes
- While the bulgur is resting, prepare the parsley, mint, cucumber, and scallions
- When the bulgur is ready, add tomato and pepper pastes
- Using a small spatula or spoon, work the tomato and pepper pastes into the bulgur. Keep folding the bulgur with the pastes for two to three minutes until the grains are a bright red color.
- Add the parsley, mint, cucumber, and scallions and gently toss together
- Add the olive oil and pomegranate molasses and toss mix gently to evenly coat the salad
- Taste the salad and adjust the flavor if needed. Add kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
- If necessary, add pomegranate molasses ½ teaspoon at a time to get the flavor you want
- If you would like the salad spicier, add red pepper flakes
- Let the salad sit for at least an hour at room temperature to allow the flavors to more thoroughly combine. If resting for more than two hours, cover and refrigerate. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.