Sure, there are some foods that have become so popular that everyone knows about them.
Tabouli certainly qualifies in that category. Even in non-Mediterranean, non-Levantine restaurants around our area, chances are good you can find at least some form of this parsley and bulgur wheat salad on the menu.
And yet, despite its ubiquity, it seems like few actually know about what makes tabouli so special. After all, there had to be something that caused it to become as popular as it has.
We kept this in mind as we pursued our research into the wonders of tabouli, and what we found was so very exciting.
Tabouli, the Levant, Syria and Aleppo
The exploration of tabouli and its origins draws us back to one of the most historically active geographies in human history: the Levant.
What is the Levant?
The Levant itself refers to a broad, hard-to-agree-upon and fairly imprecise area in the Middle East bounded by naturally formed boundaries. The general consensus, though, is that the Levant counts as anything south of the Taurus Mountains in modern-day Turkey, east of the Mediterranean Sea, west of the former borders of Mesopotamia and today’s Iraq, and north of the Isthmus of Suez (also known as “that piece of land that connects Egypt and Israel”).
Today, the Levant contains and comprises of several modern states including Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For the most part, these cultures hosted within the Levant – or, as it is called in Arabic, the Mashriq – share a lot of commonalities with one another. These contemporary delineations for these states, however, are less the result of cultural/ideological divide and instead the result of pretty arbitrary artificial border creation British and French during the 20th century.
For a region that has experienced a lot of tumultuous change in its entire history, you could say that the only true consistency for the Mashriq is the continuously revolving door of prevailing powers and cultural influences from the area. Only in the current history of man (i.e. not counting any of the millennia before the common era), the lands of the Levant have belonged to the Assyrians, the Persians, the Mesopotamians, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, the Arabs, the Ottomans… and so on. There are a lot of civilizations that have come and gone through this area, so all you really need to know is that the Mashriq has long been a hotbed of cultural interaction and integration.
Even so, despite a relatively shared history across the entire region, there are still nuanced differences and intricacies between different regional cultures. Especially in the absence of any truly lasting social and political unity between civilizations, it might actually be a little misleading to suggest there’s a “pan-Levantine” style of cuisine. What you have instead is a hodgepodge mosaic of smaller, more diverse cultural clusters and organizations that each offer something different and unique to the greater regional identity.
And in the history of the Mashriq, there are few cities that have played quite as prominent a role as the cosmopolitan hub of Aleppo in modern day Syria.
Syria, Aleppo and the Northern Levant
Few can lay claim to being a “cradle of human civilization” quite like Syria can, and it has some of the most ancient cities to prove it. There are streets of Damascus, for example, that you can walk down that were the very same streets that Jesus Christ supposedly traversed as well.
In what we’ll call our common era of human history from 8,000 BC until now, Syria has at one time or another been home to ~30 of the “who’s who” of majorly impactful civilizations: the Romans, the Persians, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Umayyads, the Babylonians, etc. Seriously.. this list of the empires and cultures that have affected Syrian history says it all in such a succinct and elegant way.
As a result, much of the cultural and culinary development – both that which disseminated throughout the rest of the Levant as well as that which stayed “traditionally and uniquely Syrian” – happened within the boundaries of the Syrian lands. More specifically within the lands, there is no singular city that has had as much a cultural impact as Aleppo.
Standing at the crossroads of two major trading routes that passed through Syria, Aleppo – also called Halab in Arabic – has been a focal point of commercial and cultural activity for the entire Levant since the 3rd century BC at least. As a hub and connection point between Central Asia and the Mediterranean, the souqs and markets of Aleppo served as a premium destination for merchant caravans across the millennia and across the different ruling empires of the land.
In addition to lending its own local produce and agricultural goods (thanks to a favorable and Mediterranean-like climate as well), the trading and movement of food products like spices, fruits, nuts, peppers, meats and grains was staggering. It’s little wonder that, in the times of Ottoman rule, the Ottoman emperors would send their chefs to Aleppo in order to learn of new cooking techniques and ingredients to modernize their own cuisine.
While this might be a point of contest for some, it is here where we can trace back the beginnings of the yummy and now-ubiquitous tabouli recipe. The recipe is thought to have originated somewhere in the mountains bordering Lebanon and in southwest Syria, but it became popularized and spread throughout the region thanks to the bustling commercial activity within the walls of the Aleppo citadel.
About this Tabouli Recipe
Before diving into the recipe for tabouli itself, it might be helpful here to have a quick chat about a key concept in modern Levantine cuisines: the mezze.
It’s easy to mistakenly associate the notion of mezzes as a set of appetizers or similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas. After all, the word mezze itself is derived from the Persian and/or Turkish (or both) words meaning “to taste” or “to snack.” It’s never any easier when the name itself is lent to the misunderstanding.
The idea of an appetizer or a “meal opener” is, however, not very common in Levantine cuisines. While the mezzes themselves are relatively small plates of food, the common practice is to have at least 4 or 5 mezzes served and on the table at any given time. The plates may be small, but the quantities of food available are more on par with a larger meal. In a way, the mezze is more akin to a Scandinavian smorgasbord meal than it is to the tapas, the antipasti, or the hors d’oeuvre.
Over the course of a meal primarily of different mezzes, you’ll see a progression from lighter to heavier fare. The meal might begin with various dips, yogurts, finger foods, and of course salads like tabouli. From there, the mezzes might contain more substantial vegetables or eggs, followed by even more mezzes that feature meats and fishes in various types of preparations.
Again, even though the plates are small, a meal full of mezzes might turn into one incredibly substantial meal for you.
Now… Onto Tabouli
There are two major components to a really traditional tabouli: parsley (and lots of it) and bulgur wheat.
No matter who you ask, the general consensus is that there is no such thing as having too much parsley in your tabouli. More broadly, many Levantine dishes really like to emphasize qadb, or edible herbs, and tabouli lends more support to the greater cause.
To start, you’ll de-stem and de-leaf your parsley after which point you can chop it into smaller pieces. Nowadays, especially thanks to the convenience of the food processor , it’s so easy and tempting to pop everything into the food processor and create the salad in 5 minutes. Sure, you want the ingredients to be smaller, but you need to retain an element of “chunk” from the parsley in every bite. Besides, over-chopped parsley might run the risk of becoming soggy in your tabouli’s dressing over time. If you can help it in any way, try to chop the parsley by hand.
What we found, in the end, was that a cool little secret to a nice, crisp tabouli is to cut the parsley with an extremely sharp knife. This way, the leaves aren’t bruised and stay fresher for longer in the salad.
And now comes the other key ingredient to a truly traditional tabouli: the bulgur.
In essence, bulgur are kernels of whole wheat that have been steamed then dried then crushed into smaller particles. Since the wheat has already been steamed and heated, bulgur requires no additional cooking and can be popped into your tabouli immediately. What makes bulgur even better is that it has an incredibly long storage life… in case you want to keep making tabouli again and again.
It’s the bulgur that will help you distinguish the real tabouli recipes from the non-traditional varieties. Especially as you move away from Levantine cuisines, some versions of tabouli will use couscous and other similar grains instead of bulgur. Don’t get us wrong… these recipes are really tasty as well, but it becomes a truly traditional tabouli once you have the bulgur and its strong, nutty almost oaky flavor added in.
The key to adding your bulgur into your tabouli, however, is to use a very fine grain and to not add too much into it. Whereas you can never have too much parsley, there is a limit to how much is too much bulgur for your salad. One reason for this is that, as the bulgur sits in the salad, it will start to absorb the dressing and juices from other vegetables and expand. If you’ve added in too much bulgur, suddenly your eating a bulgur salad that little resembles the true tabouli goodness.
For this reason, we’d recommend using super fine bulgur. Some brands will number their bulgur, so you’ll want to be on the lookout for #1 or similarly fine versions of the grain.
Putting it All Together
Outside of the bulgur and the parsley, the rest of the tabouli is incredibly simple to prepare. You have some flexibility here as to what additionally you’ll want to add into your tabouli, although you can never go wrong adding in vegetables like tomatoes and onions. Additional qadb edible herbs are also a great idea here.
To compile, put all your chopped ingredients into a bowl and drizzle a dressing made of primarily olive oil and lemon juice. Mix everything together, let sit for a bit, and then it’s time to serve.
Finally, for serving, it’s especially popular in Syria to serve tabouli not with bread… but on leaves of Romaine lettuce. Take a piece of lettuce with a hearty spoonful of tabouli, and enjoy the goodness that comes from it.
Our Take on the Recipe
For a recipe so elegant in its simplicity, we wanted to follow a recipe that stuck closely to the basics. We found it in this recipe, which is why we used it as our original reference.
Call this semantics if you will, but one small tweak we found to make a difference was to soak the bulgur for the tabouli slightly longer than our reference suggested. Even an additional 10 minutes (30 minutes total) made all the difference in the taste and texture of the bulgur in the tabouli.
In the salad itself, we kept the amount of bulgur the same but increased the amount of fresh greens around it. This included the parsley, tomatoes and onions – which we scaled up – as well as an additional qadb of mint. It’s not terribly common to find mint in your tabouli, but it can be done.
One final change we also made was to add some additional seasonings into the dressing for the tabouli. Namely, we added small dashes of sumac, a tart-tasting spice made from dried berries, and a small bit of allspice and salt into the dressing. This helped to give an added zest into the salad that we found particularly enjoyable. In general, we would say that the allspice is perhaps more optional, but we’d strongly recommend you add sumac into your version of the salad.
Other than that, the salad is so simple and so delicious as is, and that remains one of its beauties. Especially on a warm summer day, this is the perfect dish for a refreshing, light and fun meal… at least until you’re deep into your 10th mezze.
What would you add to your tabouli? Comment below!