I was introduced to tabouleh on June 6, 1979, fell in love, and have stayed that way ever since. Oh, sure, the rest of the meze is good, great even, but tabouleh is the dish that makes it all work. Tabouleh is a Lebanese salad made from parsley, bulgur wheat, tomato, and onion, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. When done right it is bright and fresh, slightly tart, and slightly bitter. When done wrong, as it is in most Greek restaurants, and many middle eastern restaurants, it is tasteless or too sweet, with not enough parsley. And do not be taken in by salads containing couscous that claim to be tabouleh: they are imposters, and though charming, are not tabouleh.

If you want to know how it ought to taste, try any of the Lebanese restaurants in downtown Portland, Oregon (here is a map), especially Karam or Al-Amir.

Joanne and I have been making tabouleh for about 10 years or so, and know a thing or two about it by now. Here’s our recipe:

Utensils

  • large (12“) mixing bowl
  • chef’s knife
  • salad spinner
  • (optional) vegetable peeler
  • large spoon for mixing the salad

Ingredients

  • mixing bowl full of curly-leaf parsley, stems removed
  • 1 cup bulgur wheat (we use Middle East brand tabouleh mix)
  • a handful or two of mint leaves (pepermint or spearmint - either or both is fine)
  • 1 large tomato
  • 1 small white onion
  • (optional) small cucumber
  • minced garlic (we often use the minced garlic in oil from Costco)
  • good extra virgin olive oil (use a Tuscan or California oil for a more tart tabouleh, or kalamata for a milder flavor)
  • 1 or 2 large lemons, juiced, or packaged lemon juice (the purist would just say no to this, but I’ve found that the bitterness of the parsley and oil mask the improved flavor of the fresh lemon, so packaged really works just as well)
  • a pinch or two of salt

Preparation

Start by preparing the bulgur: follow directions on the package, but the usual procedure is roughly a cup of boiling water and a cup of bulgur, put in a bowl, covered, and let it steep for 30 minutes.

Wash and spin dry the parsley and mint, and chop coarsely.

Remove the stem, seeds, and juice from the tomato, and chop it fine (use a food processor if you want).

Finely dice the white onion.

If you use cucumber (and it is a nice addition), peel it, remove the seeds, and chop it fine.

Combine the parsley, mint, bulgur, tomato, onion, cucumber, and minced garlic in the large mixing bowl. Begin adding oil while mixing madly with the large spoon. Your goal is to coat every leaf, and have enough oil that the leaves can hold no more and you begin to see oil pooling at the bottom of the bowl. Now add lemon juice - about 2 teaspoons. Again, mix thoroughly and taste: you want to keep adding lemon juice until the flavor is slightly more tart than you like. Finally add a pinch of salt, continue mixing. You want to keep adding salt until the tartness is back to what you like (not more than 3 pinches of salt, though). When the tartness is right, you are done.

It is good to eat right away, but is actually better after it has chilled for 30 minutes. It will keep about 3 days, covered, in the refrigerator.