Tabbouleh is a very popular dish throughout north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, especially in Lebanon and Turkey. Only a few years ago it was barely known in Britain. Now it is firmly established as a regular part of modern eclectic vegetarian cookery, in restaurants and at home. It is usually described as a salad, and one of the reasons why it has taken on so strongly in Britain is probably the ease with which it has adapted itself to our often rather restricted notion of summer salads.
Tabbouleh is just as straightforward to prepare as a conventional salad, and it also involves very little, or no, cooking. Some advance planning, though, is necessary. And, to be at its best Tabbouleh needs to be made at least a few hours before being served (even the day before) and chilled in the fridge.
Although the Mediterranean tabbouleh sometimes employs aromatic spices which tend to be omitted from the Anglicized version, the general effect of the original dish is still mild rather than spicy. And anyway, the principal ingredients used are perfectly familiar from our own traditional green salads. Much the same is true of the dressing and flavouring. The final result, though, is entirely different; not an adjunct to a meal but a substantial centrepiece, the hub, as it were, of a culinary wheel.
What makes the difference is bulgur wheat. Bulgur seems to have become the commonly used form of the word, though it is sometimes spelt bulgar, bulghur or burghul. In the convenient modern way, the bulgur wheat readily available on the shelves of whole-food shops and supermarkets has already been treated and cooked to remove the hard work that would traditionally have gone into cooking the natural grain.
Bulgur wheat has a chewy, slightly nutty texture. It is also highly nutritious, and couldn't be simpler to prepare.
Weigh out 110g (4oz) for two people; 175g (6oz) for four. Place in a bowl and cover well with freshly boiled water. Leave to stand for about 30 minutes. You can get away with slightly less (15-20 minutes is often the commercially recommended soaking time), and it certainly does no harm if you leave it for quite a bit longer. While soaking, bulgur substantially increases in bulk, and for this to be achieved sufficiently I would say that 30 minutes is about right.
Using a fine mesh sieve, rinse the bulgur under cold running water, and squeeze out any remaining liquid. Some gentle pressure from a potato masher is very effective for this. The bulgur is now ready to use.
Tip it into a serving bowl and cut the other ingredients into fairly small pieces. My recipe given here starts off with some cooked, marjoram-flavoured mushroom. If you prefer to use only uncooked vegetables then simply omit the mushroom. You could still add some fresh marjoram. Indeed tabbouleh is so variable, and the preparing of it so individual, that you can adapt my selection as and how you wish.
Here are some suggestions for additional or alternative ingredients, remembering that the vegetables should be cut into smallish pieces. You could try spring onions, sweet bell peppers, fennel, carrots, other favourite fresh herbs, a teaspoon of capers, pine kernel nuts, or raisins.
But here, for a start, is my truly basic version. I have started with 110g (4oz) of unsoaked bulgur wheat. As a main dish this will provide very generous servings for two people, and, if it's to be one dish among several, enough for four people or even more.
Mushrooms, field (destalked and peeled) or closed-cup, about 110g (4oz) in weight, chopped into small pieces
Fresh parsley, a good handful, chopped
Fresh chives, half-a-dozen or so depending on their size, chopped
Fresh mint leaves, about a dozen, roughly torn. Plus some lemon balm leaves if they are available from the garden
Two ripe but firm medium-sized tomatoes, cut into chunks
Olives, a dozen or so, pitted, black or green according to taste, cut in halves
Cucumber, a quarter, deseeded, thinly sliced
The juice from one lemon
Salt (sea or rock salt is good for this) and pepper
Marjoram, a few sprigs of fresh, finely chopped, or a level teaspoon of dried
Tip the drained bulgur into a large serving bowl
Gently fry the mushrooms in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Use a fair amount of oil to keep the mushrooms juicy. Add the marjoram and continue cooking for another two or three minutes. Set aside to cool before adding to the bulgur wheat. Then stir in all the other herbs and vegetables. Finally add the rock salt and pepper (and I use a little more of both here than I would in most other dishes), lemon juice, and olive oil. Carefully mix everything together so that the ingredients are thoroughly coated but not wet.
Chill in the fridge for at least two or three hours before serving. This allows the flavours to blend together.
Serve the tabbouleh either as part of a main meal or a buffet. A fresh green salad is a perfect accompaniment, but so is a cheese board, crusty bread, vegetarian frankfurters, Linda McCartney sausages, new potatoes, bean or lentil pâté, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, green peas, broad beans.
And, one final piece of good news about tabbouleh. Any leftovers will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days. They can be quickly adapted to make an attractive soup, or be added to a vegetable stew. Or, best of all, fried to make a very different kind of meal.