Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tabbouleh and Other Salads

Baba is adamant that my stomach can’t handle the local parasites after such a long absence. Apparently Parsley and Watercress are “water processors” which means that if there is infected water (cholera, typhoid, “the local stomach bug”) they hold it inside rather than outside, so no amount of soaking them in 'precept' or 'milton' will make them safe for a non-native. Or at least that's the gist of what I've been told.

The worst temptation was when we went to a friend's house and they served the biggest, most beautiful plate of tabbouleh I've seen since grade school and I couldn't eat a single bite. It was the torment of tantalus to have my very favorite dish so close and not be able to eat it. I considered throwing caution to the wind, just suffering the consequences, but I was flying back to the states soon after. I can’t imagine anything worse than flying while you have “the local stomach bug.”

 Tabbouleh. Sorry it’s blurry, my hand was probably shaking: I wanted to eat some so badly!
Tabbouleh 101
It’s pronounced tabboolae. It’s a long a sound on the end, not a short i. I don’t know where that other pronunciation comes from. In the west, the US especially, people focus on the cracked wheat in tabbouleh far too much. Authentic tabbouleh, is mostly chopped parsley. There are other key elements as well. If there isn’t enough lemon juice or diced tomatoes, it just isn’t right. Then there’s the lack of dried mint in the dressing. If the proportions aren’t right, you miss an important and delicious experience.

You really are missing out if you’re eating tabbouleh that isn’t made right. Put it this way: if your reaction to a spoonful is “hmmm, interesting. How different,” the proportions aren’t right. If, however, your reaction is, “wow, can I have more, please,” you probably had the real thing.

Still, every family has their own recipe. I’ve seen one recipe that called for a whole cup of cracked wheat (burghol) and four bunches of parsley and another recipe calling for three tablespoons of cracked wheat and six bunches of parsley. I’ll add a note when I find a recipe that suits me.

 Cucumber and tomato salad.
Here’s a tempting favorite from my aunt's feast (featured in the post "I Ate An Ouzie. Two, Actually"). The juice from the diced tomatoes is captured and used with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and water to make the freshest tasting dressing you can imagine. Fresh chopped or dried mint and some parsley are also mixed in throughout. It’s like the taste of summer in a bowl!

If you add Arab watercress, green onions, garlic and fried pita bread chips, it would be fattoush which rounds out my top three favorite salads.

Radishes, green onions, fresh mint and sometimes fresh tarragon are on the table to munch between dishes to clear your palate, or to add to whatever you are eating: as you wish.

The wonderful thing about living in the “fertile crescent” is that produce tends to be locally grown and therefore fresh and ripe. If you go to the market rather than a government cooperative, you will likely buy produce that was harvested early that morning before the farmer drove his cart - horse, donkey, or motorcycle engine powered - into town. You’re often putting money into the hands of the very person who grew the produce. Yes, there are produce sellers, but if you want the good stuff, you get up early and go out to the source.

NOTE: When I returned in 2010, I did throw caution to the wind early and often with no ill effects. Somewhere in my system, I must still have some immunities from my childhood. Of course, I only ate salad in family houses where they had washed the greens and at the Four Seasons Hotel complex, where they cater to a foreign crowd. If you are in Syria and are dying for some greens, my top pick is Shakespeare and Co. in the Four Seasons complex. They serve a large Caesar Salad that is wonderful, and you can get the dressing on the side. There are also good greens at the terrace dining in the same complex, not to be confused with the café in the southern courtyard, where the food was either unmemorable or bad: I can’t remember which.


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