Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You say Taboli, I say Tabbouleh

Parsley has a bad reputation as being hard to start from seed. From "Park's Success with Herbs": "Growing parsley is not for the impatient...the most recently tried method was placing seeds on wet paper...on a plastic meat tray...put atop the furnace...the sprouted seeds were then placed with tweezers..." - well, you get the idea. But in spite of this and although the seed packet was at least 5 years old, I just threw the seeds into one of my standard seed trays with germination medium, put it into a bread bag and onto my bottom heat shelf. I wasn't expecting much so was surprised to see germination in about 3 days. The result was a huge yield - about 24 plants - of curly parsley. I tried to give some away but finally ended up with most of the plants in my garden.

Now, when I was growing up, the main use for parsley was as a garnish (never eaten) on restaurant plates, or sometimes chopped over potatoes. But as I planted these, I thought, "finally, enough to make tabbouleh". Tabbouleh, as all right-thinking people should know, is basically parsley salad. My first taste of it was in about 1960 at Jamil's, the steakhouse in Tulsa that served tabbouleh, hummus and cabbage rolls as first courses before the steak arrived. It wasn't until I was in Madison for graduate school in the 1970s that I learned the name of the dish and how to make it. We did a lot of "gourmet" cooking and having fellow students over for dinner in those days. My officemate Hasib (a Druse Lebanese) returned the favor by inviting us over for a memorable meal prepared by his own bachelor hands. He explained that he was using his mother's recipes. He gave me this recipe for tabbouleh.

Hasib's Mother's Tabbouleh

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
2 chopped fresh tomatoes
2 finely chopped medium sweet onions
1 large bunch parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh mint (spearmint) leaves, or 1 T dried mint
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Soak the bulgur wheat in enough hot water to cover until soft - drain any excess. Mix with vegetables. Add seasonings, oil, and lemon.

This is a favorite of mine to make when we have fresh ripe tomatoes from the garden. I cheat on this recipe because I also add chopped cucumbers when I have them in my garden (Hasib told me this was ok) and I skimp a little on the mint. But I always balance this with plenty of parsley.

On trips home to Oklahoma with my newfound sophistication, I was interested to observe that suddenly bulgur wheat was being sold in the produce section in the tiny town of Tahlequah. I thought this to be very exotic. But it wasn't till I was served "taboli" by another former Oklahoman that I realized something had happened after I left home. She informed me that this was a native Oklahoman dish! But it was mostly the wheat and some vegetables. I asked her "where is the parsley?" and she informed me that she didn't like parsley in it. This is like serving pizza without a crust. I have since learned that a number of Lebanese Christians had settled in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City had a steakhouse similar to Jamil's) and the popularity of tabbouleh spread from there, especially after Bishop's ( began selling the bulgur wheat in the 1960s. Apparently now you can't go to a potluck in Oklahoma without being served tabbouleh - except that it may not contain parsley. If you refer to the Bishop's website, you will see what appears to be a bulgur wheat salad, garnished with a few vegetables. It is an interesting story in evolution of a dish - as this picture of my tabbouleh shows, the bulgur should only be stars in a parsley sky, not the main dish.

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