“Let thy greens be thy medicine, and they medicine be thy greens”
Salads are a perennial feature on Middle Eastern tables, both complementing a mezze spread and thrilling palates in their own right. There’s much to learn from a Levantine approach to salad: the regularity with which it’s eaten, the emphasis on high-quality seasonal produce, and the way vegetables are celebrated as the stars of the show, augmented by dark extra virgin olive oil, and punchy quantities of herbs and spices.
Food carries messages about class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and identity. Food is not only what is materially before us or the raw ingredients which go into making a particular dish. Food has symbolic significance. It can often be a point of social contact and outreach, a way of expressing identity, and a tangible way to remember home.
Fattoush is a Palestinian-Lebanese salad made from toasted or fried pieces of khubz ‘arabi (pita bread) combined with mixed greens and other vegetables, such as radishes and tomatoes. It is derived from the Arabic fatt “crush” and the suffix of Turkic origin, ūsh. Fatta refers to a family of Arab culinary preparations in the Levant in which pieces of stale, toasted, or fresh flatbread are crumbled and used as the foundation of a prepared dish. These preparations developed quite naturally in the Arab world because much of the bread that is consumed there is flatbread, a bread that dries out quickly. As the bread becomes stale and hardens it is crushed and added to the salad, hence the name.
Most dishes created in the Levantine area are part of a general and harsh historic background of making use of all the ingredients available with minimum wastage. This famous bread salad is made with toasted pieces of Arabic flatbread, cucumbers, tomatoes, scallions, parsley, baqli (a word meaning any wild green), and lettuce. The vegetables are cut into relatively large pieces compared to tabbouleh, which requires ingredients to be finely chopped. Sumac is usually used to give fattoush its sour taste.
Tabbouleh, traditionally made of tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, bulgur, and onion, seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.The Levantine Arabic tabbūle is derived from the Arabic word taabil, meaning “to season” or “to spice. The herb seasoning being referred to is coriander or cilantro (tawābil) although tabbouleh is usually made with parsley and mint. The key ingredient in a tabbouleh, but not the main ingredient, is the hard wheat product known as bulgur
To the Arabs, edible herbs known as qaḍb formed an essential part of their diet in the Middle Ages, and dishes like tabbouleh attest to their continued popularity in Middle Eastern cuisine today. Originally from the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, tabbouleh has become one of the most popular salads in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the wheat variety salamouni cultivated in the region around Mount Lebanon, Beqaa Valley, and Baalbeck was considered (in the mid-19th century) as particularly well suited for making bulgur, a basic ingredient of tabbouleh.
Another theory of the origin of tabbouleh is that it was invented by Maronite monks and hermits of Qadisha valley. It was known called Batoule, from the word batoul, meaning virgin in Syriac, since it was the virgin monks who ate it. The monks grew parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions, and were able to secure wheat crumbs from the bordering Bekaa valley. Tabbouleh and other vegetable-based mezze dishes were seen as being a means to scrimp on the use of meat.
The majority of the tabbouleh is composed of the green herbs, not overwhelmed by the bulgur. The taste of a true tabbouleh should not be of wheat but of herbs. The longer the bulgur sits and absorbs the olive oil, lemon juice, tomato, and onion juices, the more it will swell and dominate the salad. The texture of the labor-intensive method of hand-chopping all the ingredients with a large knife still resonates to this date. Tabbouleh is properly eaten by scooping up small amounts with pieces of romaine lettuce, not with a fork and knife, nor with pita bread.
The secret of a truly refined tabbouleh lies in the way you chop the ingredients. To produce the required thin, crisp slivers of parsley and mint, chop the leaves with a minimum of bruising.
Those gorgeous salads captivate the eye with their pageantry of deep green and bright red colors that promise a savory adventure for the mouth. Their flavor are invigorating, thanks to their classic dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. Those salads are perfection in a plate, with their delicate harmony of colors, nutrients, flavors and texture. The colors of our salads are so extraordinary; they can hardly be replicated in any dish. They ooze with colors and fragrance. Our salads are not a meal, they are a style.
To my Lebanon and its earth’s bounty…