Ask a Lebanese and they’ll shake a bundle of parsley and mint at you as they proclaim that a true tabouleh is one that is herb based. I have certainly been guilty of this.
But is that really the case? First, let’s consider the etymology of the word which comes from the Arabic root ‘tabala’ meaning to toss, dress or marinate which also offers us a family of ‘mou-TABAL’ dishes… This said, we can come to understand that the word ‘taboul-eh’ highlights the act of ‘dressing, tossing or marinating’ ingredients. Therefore, and contrary to what is popularly believed, the ingredients and in particular parsley is not of paramount importance. At least it might not have always been the case in the beginning and it certainly is not always the case depending on the season or country. It turns out there is more than one way to toss a tabouleh. Allow me to elaborate.
In Syria and parts of Lebanon, namely in the Bekaa valley and nearer to the Syrian border, it is popular to prepare a salad with shredded cabbage in the winter, when fresh parsley and tomatoes are not at their seasonal best. It receives the apt label of white tabouleh. Still, other versions see it made with lentils, preserved meat and other seasonal ingredients, often also labeled as winter’s tabouleh. We’re also familiar with the burghul laden variations of “tabouleh” recipes, known as ‘ksir’ in Turkish and ‘eetch’ in Armenian. Run a google search in Arabic and ‘Ksir’ and ‘eetch’ turn up labelled ‘tabouleh hamra’ or red tabouleh.
My curiosity piqued, I hit the tabouleh trail in my latest book, The Jewelled Table, to explore tabouleh’s obscure origins.
Ask your Lebanese parent or grandparent and they’ll acknowledge that over 50 years ago, “Lebanese” tabouleh used to be more burghul-centric, especially so in the villages (see old-country tabouleh image in the swipe). The proportion drift of burghul to parsley was likely inspired by the ‘refined’ city ladies of Beirut, both to reduce the ‘bloating’ effect of burghul and as a symbol of status! This parsley-laden version of tabouleh was also known to have been admonished by the Syrians.
More interestingly however, The Turkish word for ‘red tabouleh’ aka kisir, insinuates ‘infertile’, ‘barren’ or ‘lacking’, perhaps applied because of the salad’s lack of meat. It is considered a mock or vegan çi köfte, the name for the Turkish tartar believed to be of Kurdish origin, which involves lean mince kneaded with fine burghul, pepper, tomato paste, onion and spices. In Arabic it is called kebbeh nayye. A similar parallel is that the Armenian ‘red tabouleh’ popularly known as ‘Eetch’ is in fact also referenced as Sud Khayma aka mock raw steak tartare… i.e meat is omitted.
Much like a Lebanese tabouleh is served on the mezze table, a mock or vegan çi köfte or Sud Khaymeh are often served in or alongside lettuce cups or vine leaves.
Is this all telling of tabouleh’s origins? I believe it’s very likely tabouleh may have begun as the region’s tartares- in the kofte/kebbeh theme- and as it wound through the burghul belt the proportions of grain to meat changed over time, influenced by austerity and lenten culture. More recently, further influenced by dietary preferences and as a display of status, the parsley-laden version much-associated with Lebanon would be served!