Let’s examine the background of tabbouleh and the process of making burghul, or bulgur, in the second of this series, coming from my 1980’s cooking class on Middle Eastern cuisine. My recipe uses our 21st century food processor, which affords an easy preparation of this healthy, traditional taste-treat-a recurrent dish in my kitchen.
Background of Tabbouleh
Tabbouleh is mostly widely known as a Lebanese recipe, though it is popular throughout the Levant, the large area east of the Mediterranean Sea, including such countries as Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, present-day Israel, etc. The Levantine Arabic word tabbule is derived from tabil, which means “seasoning”; its literal translation is “dip”. This salad is traditionally a part of the mezze, or first course of appetizers; it originated in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, where they have favored qadb, or edible herbs, in their diet since the Middle Ages.
How is Burghul Made?
One of tabbouleh’s main ingredients is burghul–bulgur-an ancient preparation of wheat-usually durum; it is made by partially cooking wheat berries, then drying them, producing a glassy hard interior. Next, they are moistened again to toughen the outer bran area; then, ground into large chunks, removing the bran and germ in the process, while leaving the endosperm. These pieces are then sifted and classified according to grade. Coarse burghul (to 3.5 mm across) is commonly used in pilafs and salads, while a fine burghul (o.5 mm) is utilized in making sweets, such as puddings. This particular wheat product is most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa. It has both long-shelf life and a quick-cooking features, thus making it is an ideal, basic ingredient for this time-tested salad.
Tabbouleh at Nicholas’ for the 32 Years
For all 32 years I have lived in Oregon, I have been indulging in this treasured salad at the Mediterranean establishment Nicholas’, one of my favorite Portland restaurants. Presently it has three locations in our metropolitan area, with my current choice being the upscale version on N.E. Broadway, with its comfortable decor.
Nicholas’ original place on Grand Ave-Portland’s first Middle Eastern restaurant-however, was a mere hole in the wall until the late-nineties, when it was first remodeled. The owners opened its two other locations in 2003 and 2010, with the exact same menus and prices, but with much more modern, “posh” environments.
When I started going to the original eatery on Grand, before its remodel, I would be instantly transplanted back to the romance of the small cafes I knew in impoverished Peru. There I had the opportunity to study Peruvian food for three weeks in 1985, to augment my food history business (see Bolitos de Chocolat y Coco). Even though I like more comfort now, it was actually this original Nicholas’ restaurant on Grand that thrilled my heart the most, with its quaint poverty contrasted by incredible food-oh the glorious, abundant food!
My Three Favorite Portland Restaurants
Back then, with pride in my city, I always took my out-of-town visitors to my three favorite restaurants: Nicholas’, Bread and Ink, and The Original Pancake House (listed as one of James Beard’s top ten in the nation in the 70’s-see Dutch Babies). All of these have been serving great food since my 1986 arrival. Hands down, my guests always proclaimed the exquisite, poorer Nicholas’ as by far the best.
Our Bountiful Vegetarian Repast
In those early days, our order always remained the same: humus, tabbouleh, and falafels, all of which came with their ever-present, gigantic, hot-from-the-oven pita bread, crowding the entire center of the table. Though only consisting of three individual servings, this elegant, vegetarian repast was so abundant that if there were less than four of us, we took leftovers home-all for a pittance. My guests marveled at the quality of both the food and experience, for it was definitely like being transported to a Third World country.
Age has mellowed me some, for today I love to frequent the more dignified Nicolas’ on N.E. Broadway. Still wowing my guests with its exceptional food, I now order their incredible chicken kabobs, humus, and tabbouleth, of course, while ending with their exceptional baklava. This amply pleases my friend’s great expectations, which I have encouraged, for there is great romance here, though perhaps not as pronounced as that of their captivating 1980’s café.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 468.
Tabbouleh (Lebanese burghul and parsley salad) Yields: 6 servings. Total prep time: 35 min plus 1 hr for chilling.
3/4 c burghul, bulgur wheat (Available in bulk at our local Winco, or organic burghul may be found at the national upscale New Season’s.)
2 c chopped curly parsley, 1 lg bunch (Organic is best, which is only slightly more expensive.)
1 bunch green onions, chopped
2 firm, ripe med tomatoes (May use organic Roma tomatoes, which are relatively inexpensive.)
Scant 1/4 c fresh lemon juice (2 small lemons needed.)
1/4 c olive oil (Avocado oil will also work; good olive oil, however, is more flavorful and really healthy when not heated to high temperatures, which makes it carcinogenic.)
1/4 c fresh mint, chopped (May substitute 2 tsp dried mint, or to taste.)
1 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is important for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper, or to taste
Boil 1 1/2 c water, stir in burghul, set aside to cool.
- Clean parsley, onions, and tomatoes with an inexpensive, safe, effective vegetable spray (combine 97% distilled white vinegar with 3% hydrogen peroxide). Let sit for 3 minutes; then, rinse well in a sink full of water three times.
- Juice lemons, by first rolling them on counter, pressing down hard with hand, to loosen meat; extract juices; set aside. (See above photo of easy hand-held juicer, available at our local Bob’s Red Mill.)
- Break stems off parsley and place in a food processor. Chop small, by repeatedly pressing the pulse button-this may also be done with a knife, which is more laborious. Place in a large bowl.
- Chop green onions (may include the green part, in addition); add to bowl.
- For ease in slicing, cut tomatoes with the skin side down (see photo below). Mix in with parsley and onions.
Place lemon juice in a glass 1-c measuring cup (should be a scant 1/4 c); fill the rest with olive oil to measure 1/2 c. Add mint, salt, and pepper; beat well with a fork.
- Drain burghul when cool, add to vegetables, pour beaten dressing over top, and blend well. Chill for 1 hour before serving (see photo of finished product at top of recipe). This is so healthy and good!