the ultimate tabbouleh

Go with the grain and create a batch of the summery Middle Eastern salad. Rachel Walker shows you how to get it just right

the classic recipe

serves 4 people

75g bulgur wheat 3 tomatoes
120g flat-leaf parsley, picked and sliced
30g mint leaves, picked and sliced
6 spring onions, finely sliced
100g pomegranate seeds
2 tbsp olive oil
Zest and juice of l lemon
12 baby gem lettuce leaves, to serve (optional)

Rinse the bulgur wheat. Cover with 150ml boiling water and simmer for 8-10 minutes with the lid on, until tender. Drain, then return the bulgur wheat to the pan. Let it sit, covered, for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Dice the tomatoes, sprinkle with a dash of salt and leave to drain in a sieve over the sink.

Tip the parsley, mint, spring onions and pomegranate seeds into a mixing bowl, then add the bulgur wheat and tomatoes. Shake the olive oil and lemon juice in a jar, and pour the dressing over the tabbouleh. Season with the lemon zest, freshly ground black pepper and salt and mix well.

Serve the tabbouleh in a bowl with a stack of baby gem lettuce leaves, if using, for scooping it up.

the grain
Traditional recipes have a bulgur wheat base - a robust and juicy grain with a gently nutty flavour. However, contemporary cookbooks include tabbouleh recipes that use red quinoa, green lentils, toasted freekeh and couscous. Cooking advice for bulgur varies widely. The best universal method seems to be simmering the grains in salted water for 8-10 minutes, as instructed here.

the herbs
When I worked in a restaurant kitchen, there was low-level hysteria when it came to chopping herbs. It was sacrilege to "bruise" them with a blunt knife. Slicing through the leaves to keep them bright green was a sign of a chef's prowess. It's trickier than it sounds.

I phoned the Lebanese cook Salma Hage, the author of The Lebanese Kitchen, for clarification. She advises that the best way to keep the herbs looking fresh is to make sure they are bone dry before starting to prepare them.

the extras
Much like the herbs, it's important that any other ingredients added to the tabbouleh are dry. Several recipes recommend deseeding tomatoes first, or draining them in a sieve. The moist centre of a cucumber should be removed.

A purist's tabbouleh adds just tomatoes and spring onion to the herbs and bulgur wheat, but you can add all manner of roasted vegetables, as well as toasted nuts and dried fruits to harness a Middle Eastern exoticism.

the ratios
The most common mistake with this Levantine recipe is to see it as a grain-based dish. In fact, a good tabbouleh is essentially a green parsley salad, flecked with grain. Modern British recipes have been hampered by the curious practice of selling herbs in packets that weigh as little as 25g, meaning that even three or four of them (of which a lot of the weight is in the stalks, not the leaves) are insubstantial.

The best tabbouleh doesn't scrimp on herbs. For inspiration, see Sabrina Ghayour's recipe in Persiana: it uses just 25g of bulgur wheat (for 5-6 people).

the serving suggestions
Tabbouleh is most at home with dishes such as falafel, baba ghanoush and labneh (yoghurt). It's a versatile dish, though. Use it as a bed for pan-fried fish, serve in a big bowl at a barbecue and add a handful of toasted pita bread to any leftovers to rechristen it a fattoush.

the twists
• Heat 1 tbsp oil in a saucepan and add 1 tsp crushed fennel seeds. Tip in the bulgur wheat, coat it in the herb oil, then pour water over the grains and simmer for 8-10 minutes.
• Halve and core a cauliflower, and pulse in a food processor to make a raw and gluten-free equivalent to bulgur wheat.
• Stir a selection of dried spices through the tabbouleh.
• Lots of recipes get experimental with the dressing, incorporating regional ingredients such as pomegranate molasses and sumac.

salad days
Classic tabbouleh can be tarted up with various additions such as roast veg, or nuts and fruit.