The first time I tried tabbouleh was about a dozen years ago. The Elegant Baker and I found a recipe in an Ina Garten cookbook. It looked interesting and we thought we’d give it a try. That led to us purchasing bulgur for the first time, which was an ingredient we were very unfamiliar with.
Having no experience with bulgur or with tabbouleh, I slavishly followed the recipe in Ina’s book to a tee. The result was not surprisingly delicious. It almost always is with Ina’s recipes. If you’re wanting to expand your kitchen repertoire, any one of Ina’s books is a great place to start. The recipes are all elegant, and most of them aren’t that fussy. Her books are a great place to learn that “special” doesn’t need to mean expensive, exotic, or time consuming.
Back to the tabbouleh. It became a regular on our summer time table when the produce was the freshest. The kids liked it (or at least tolerated it — sometimes they think we eat ‘weird’ food). The recipe made a lot so that we could use a batch for several days for lunch or dinner.
Fast forward eight or nine years, when I had become focused on the foods of the Mediterranean. I came to love the Mediterranean idea of freshness. The focus on vegetables first over meats. The simple preparation. The whole food approach. Now, when I cook at home, the vast majority of our dinners originated in the Mediterranean area.
Tabbouleh, also called tabouleh, tabbouli, tabouli, or taboulah, is a Mediterranean salad of parsley, bulgur wheat and vegetables. It originates in “Fertile Crescent” of the Mediterranean near Lebanon and Syria. Naturally vegetarian, it fits into a wide variety of diets. With a little modification it can be gluten free or keto friendly too!
Theme and Variation
Tabbouleh became a regular part of our summertime dinner rotation. I also began to stray some from the recipe I’d slavishly followed years ago. Not that it wasn’t good. I came to appreciate that most Mediterranean food is what musicians call “Theme and Variations”. By this I mean the basic theme of a food is the same. Each region, each town, each family has its own variation on a dish to make it “theirs”. By the way, jazz musicians call it “Improvisation.”
Some people find the idea of “Theme and Variation” intimidating. But, if you step back and think about it, it really is liberating. What it means is that you can’t be wrong.
Start with the basic structure of a recipe and think of it as “The Theme”. Then you can add or subtract ingredients to suit you specific tastes. “The Variations”. Don’t like tomatoes in a recipe? Omit them (except in tomato sauce because — tomato sauce). Like kale but not swiss chard? Swap them out! The point is, never be afraid to make a dish your own. It will become YOUR authentic version of whatever!
As an example, I ended up working in a kitchen with a chef of Lebanese descent. I asked her one day about tabbouleh. She shared with me that when she made it she used a ‘version’ of her grandmother’s recipe. I never learned what made it her version. She did say that her grandmother always used curly parsley. I also learned she always used dried mint, not fresh.
Curly vs Flat Leaf Parsley
Although I always used flat leaf parsley before, I tried it with the curly parsley. I liked the change. The flavor is different, but not that different that it made a huge difference. What was a big difference was the structure of the leaves. The curly parsley creates more ‘volume’ in the salad because of the structure of the leaves. It also creates more surface area for the dressing to adhere. As a result, I find the flavor more balanced.
I never asked but I suspect the dried mint was a matter of availability. Until the last decade or so, it was near impossible to get fresh mint in the Northeast except for a few weeks a year. The Variation was created because of what was available but fit the structure of the recipe. Now mint gets flown in from South American and is available year round.
One key to understanding Mediterranean food is that there is no one “real, true, authentic” recipe for any food. Again, it is more “theme and variation”. There are tons of recipes for tabbouleh and they offer many different versions. Several of which claimed to be “authentic” or “real”.
To start with, no two recipes for tabbouleh are the same. Start with the premise that tabbouleh is a parsley salad with bulgur wheat. Add other vegetables and season with a citrus dressing. Now you are pretty close to a “traditional” structure.
The Variations Make It Your Own “Authentic”
So we have the basics of a “theme”. Now some variations. Over the years, I have looked at and tried dozens of recipes for taboulleh to refine it to my own taste. There are any number of variations available online. Some cater to specialized diets — keto and gluten free for example. Others to different taste profiles. None are ‘wrong’ (ok — one is. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Let me say at the outset, there were only TWO ingredients I found in every version of tabbouleh I surveyed. And they were NOT parsley and bulgur. The two ingredients were in fact tomatoes and olive oil. See, the point I’m getting at is that everything is fair game when you make it your own.
Let’s look at some of the variations. Since tabbouleh is a ‘parsley’ salad, let’s look at the greens first. Parsley and mint are both common in the ‘traditional’ variety. The amounts are very non-standard. They ranged from equal parts parsley to mint all the way to just a few chopped leaves of mint. I like a four to one ratio of parsley to mint. For example 1 cup parsley to 1/4 cup mint.
Mint and parsley were also among the first ingredients tossed out in the variations. I saw them substituted with kale, arugula, basil, amaranth, chard, beet greens, and romaine lettuce. I can’t get on board with any of those substitutions — It has to be parsley with mint for me. But it is not wrong if you prefer something else.
Most people chopped the greens by hand, sometimes finely, sometimes more ‘rustic’. Several recipes call for cutting the greens in a food processor. For me, I favor hand cutting more on the finer side. I would avoid using the food processor, for two reasons
Don’t Use a Food Processor
Most importantly, unless you are REALLY careful your greens can become a green mush paste. That is not what you want. Second, using a food processor makes for something else you have to set up, then clean up. Keep the clean up to a minimum and do it by hand. Its a great opportunity to practice with a knife.
When bulgur is called for in a recipe, the amount varied widely. At one extreme, speaking it ranged from twice as much bulger as parsley. At the other end only two tablespoons of bulger. And of course, with everything in between. Interestingly, the two extremes both came from Lebanese food bloggers who offered “authentic” recipes.
Bulgur was commonly substituted out. Couscous, a form of pasta, was used on occasion. More often the substitution was to make a gluten free version. Since bulgur is part of the wheat family, it brings gluten to the table. Want gluten free — bulgur has got to go. Quinoa is a common replacement. I’ve made quinoa tabbouleh for catering events, and it is a pretty good alternative. Other gluten free subs were riced cauliflower, hemp hearts, brown rice and chickpeas. One gluten free recipe omitted a grain altogether.
I would say the most ‘bizarre’ recipe I saw was for a “Vegan” tabbouleh. Not that ‘vegan’ is bizarre, but how the bulgur was suppose to be cooked. The ‘vegan’ tabbouleh called for the bulgur to be cooked in chicken stock. I think they missed the point of “vegan”.
That wasn’t the only recipe I saw for tabbouleh that introduces a meat product. I saw several “shrimp” varieties as well. Also — not “vegan”. I would call tabbouleh a ‘naturally’ vegetarian option, so I see no need to add meat.
Play With Your Vegetables
The vegetables options are wide open. Everything seemed open to interpretation. Onions were either in or out. So was garlic. But neither was universally used. If onions were in, sometimes they were chopped red onion, and sometimes sliced. Often they were green onions cut into rings. That is the way I do it, but you can’t really be wrong.
Cucumbers were another ingredient that was in or out. Personally, I favor cucumbers and always include them. I use an English or Hothouse cucumber, and cut it into fairly small chunks. I like the ‘crunch’ they add. But you wouldn’t be wrong to not use them. Several versions said they are ‘not traditional’ but that you can add them if you like.
Other vegetables that made appearances included peppers, cauliflower florets, broccoli florets and zucchini. Some include fruits like pomegranate seeds, strawberries, lime wedges and orange slices. I use none of these, but of course you are free to add them.
Finally the dressing is as close to ‘standard’ as it gets, but not universally so. Everybody uses olive oil in their dressing. Which citrus to use wasn’t universally accepted. Most versions call for lemon, but there are many versions that call for lime, and some that call for both.
The recipe below represents my version of tabbouleh, and it includes the things that I like and omits what I don’t. It is still pretty close to that Ina recipe, but I’ve changed how much mint I use. I also don’t stress about tomatoes. I use what is handy. If they are grape tomatoes, I halve them. If not, I use whole tomatoes and cut them about the same size as my cucumber.
Here are a few “tips” for preparation:
Bulgur: I like to get the bulgur nice and flavorful by soaking it in a mix of the lemon juice and water. I use a 1:1 ratio of liquid to bulgur for soaking. One thing that makes this a great summer dish is there is no need to heat the kitchen to prepare the bulgur. Just use warm tap water or room temperature water. You will need to soak it a bit longer than if you used boiling water, but you won’t be heating up your kitchen. To save time, start soaking the bulgur the night before and it will be ready when you are.
Parsley: Be sure to thorougly wash your parsley. Parsley is notorious for being ‘sandy’, and so you need to be sure it is washed and dried before using. I like to fill a large bowl with cool water and stick the parsly in it upside down – leaves first with the stems in the air. Swish it around for a few seconds then let it sit for several minutes. The heavy sand will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Remove the parsley and wrap in paper towels and squeeze to thoroughly dry. Dried parsley will cut easier and more cleanly than wet.
Tomatoes: I like to cut my tomatoes and my cucumber into chunks of about the same size. You can make them as large or as small as you’d like. There are no strict rule here. Sometimes, I will use grape or cherry tomatoes. If I do that, I just cut them in halves or quarters and don’t chop them.
Cucumbers: Peeling is a personal choice. We are a ‘mixed’ family here on that matter, so sometimes they get peeled and sometimes they don’t. Doesn’t really matter. I do cut the cucumbers the long way and use a 1/4 teaspoon to hollow out the seeds before cutting them up. Just I do when preparing the tzatziki (or almost any other dish that calls for hothouse cucumbers.)
Green Onions: To keep from getting big onion-y bite of the green onion whites, I take an extra prep step. I separate the whites from the greens, and then cut the whites in half length wise. Then I grab them all together and cut them into “rings”. This is entirely a preference, and there is no need to take the trouble if you don’t want to. I do, but remember, we’re making this yours and not mine.
Dressing: I don’t use lemon juice in a dressing because the acid will make the greens of the parsley wilt quicker. I get the lemon flavor from how I soak the bulgur. I just dress the salad with a drizzle of olive oil. There is no reason you can’t make a lemon juice/olive oil dressing and use that. Again — yours not mine.
The Bottom Line
This is a perfect place to start experimenting on making a recipe ‘your own’. Start with a basic structure — use my recipe below. Then change it to suit your needs. Make it what you like. Enjoy!!
- 1/2 cup Bulgur Wheat Fine in better, but either is fine
- 2 bunches Curly Parsley Medium chopped
- 1/4 cup Mint Leaves Medium Chopped
- 1 cup Hothouse Cucumber Seeded and medium chunked
- 1 cup Tomatoes Diced
- 1 cup Green Onion Sliced, about 1 bunch
- 1 Lemon Juiced
- 1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Juice the lemon and add to a 1 cup measuring cup
- Add tepid water to the lemon juice until it come to 1/2 cup of liquid
- In a small bowl, pour the lemon juice/water mixture over the bulger and give it a quick stir to combine
- Cover and let sit for 30 – 60 minutes. To speed prep time for tabbouleh, the bulgur can be prepared ahead. It can even be done the night before before and left to soak in the refrigerator.
- While bulgur is soaking, prepare parsley, mint, and vegetables
- Chop the leaves of the parsley medium to fine. Do not add the stems.
- Cut the cucumbers. See note below
- Chop tomatoes into pieces about the same size as the cucumber pieces. See note below
- Cut the green onions. See note below
- The bulgur is ready when it has absorbed all the water and has a 'soft' texture. Coarse bulgur will take longer to soak than fine bulgur
- When the bulgur is ready, add bulgur, chopped parsley, mint, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green onions together in a large bowl, and drizzle with the olive oil.
- Gently mix to combine all the ingredients
- Salt and pepper to taste