76: Tabbouleh Memories

76: Tabbouleh Memories

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Tabbouleh Memories

Dad, your guiding hand on my shoulder will remain with me forever.

~Author Unknown

When my father died after a long battle with heart disease, I was suddenly struck with what I can only describe as near panic. All the usual realizations sunk in: I would never see my father again, hear his voice, listen to his corny jokes or buy him a Christmas present. But what really hit me hard, what caused the sudden panic was the thought that I would never again taste his tabbouleh salad.

I knew, even in the midst of my grief, that worrying about salad was a little silly. But for my family, food had always meant much more than simple nourishment. Food was a sign of love, a care-taking act of selfless devotion. My father had grown up at the elbow of his Lebanese grandmother who had come to this country when she was a teenager. Her family had come from a small mountain village to make a better life, and with them they brought family recipes and a desire to share love through these special foods.

My father had learned to make dishes like tabbouleh, a salad with bulgur wheat, tomato, onion and parsley, and kibbeh made of beef, bulgur, pine nuts and seasonings. They also made stuffed grape leaves, meat pies and hummus. At every holiday and special event these same foods found their way to our dinner table, and the generations of love that went into making, serving and passing them down found their way into our hearts.

I’ll admit I didn’t always appreciate my father’s cooking. As a teen I complained more than once about my father’s need to add lemon and garlic to every dish he made. I would get upset with him when he insisted on making “special” hamburgers with spices and herbs when all I wanted was what my friends were eating. And though I knew that having a father who cared enough to make these foods for us was unique, I let the opportunity to learn pass me by.

When I realized the opportunity was gone forever, that tabbouleh salad loomed large, representing everything that my father had been to me. And because I had never learned how to make the traditional recipes, those flavors and that part of my relationship with my father were forever lost.

Or so I thought.

Luckily for me, my younger brother, Brian, had been paying attention. I didn’t know that Dad had shown Brian how to make many of the family dishes, and several months after our father died, Brian surprised me for my birthday with a bowl of tabbouleh. I couldn’t believe the flavors and the textures. They were spot on. Brian’s gift of love remains one of the most emotionally thoughtful I have ever received.

In fact, the tabbouleh inspired me, and I asked Brian if he would teach me to make a few of our father’s dishes. Between him and my Irish mother — who had been my father’s chief taste tester over the years — we muddled through. Brian took me to the public market and we bought fresh produce and ingredients to make tabbouleh, kibbeh and hummus. Brian, a chef by trade, spent the afternoon cooking, and when he was done I had a house full of the smells, textures and flavors of my youth.

Over the next few weeks, I worked with Brian to write down recipes that had only been passed down orally before that. My mother came over and helped me get flavors just right and filled in the gaps in my memory with stories about my dad, the foods he made and even notes on which he liked best or those even he didn’t care to eat. As we worked, I rediscovered a love for the foods that as a kid I sometimes shunned. I even ventured to make a few dishes myself.

Soon I was chopping and soaking and combining, calling Brian for the proper mixture of spices. As I tried out different foods, my mother suggested we take a few field trips to local Mediterranean restaurants. I sampled stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and several versions of tabbouleh, and I found myself constantly comparing the flavors to what I had grown up with.

Along the way I discovered my father had attempted to write down a few recipes, too. Brian produced Dad’s typewritten recipe for baklava, a dessert made with layers of phyllo dough, nuts, honey and spices. The dish is time consuming to make, but if it is done well, the results can be astonishing.

Brian and I set about making the dessert, and my kitchen soon rang with our laughter at the various handwritten notations Dad had made in the margins. Our father’s sense of humor shone through with notes like, “Do not cheat. Paint every sheet,” referring to the need to brush each thin sheet of dough with butter. And, “You may give this recipe to whomever you choose. Although it is a family secret.” Now every time I make baklava for Christmas or a special occasion, I smile and laugh, remembering the best parts of my father who even left us jokes in his recipes.

Through this culinary journey, I realized that a simple salad like tabbouleh had reestablished a connection with my past. It helped me gain a better appreciation for my father and his heritage and inspired me to document our family’s recipes. Now I can pass down to my own children the food of my childhood and the spirit of love in which it was given.

Sure, my boys have shown little interest in sharing my Lebanese food, save for the awesome pita breads and baklava, but perhaps one day they will give it a second chance, as I did. Maybe they will even teach their own children how to make tabbouleh or will wonder if a restaurant’s baklava is as good as Mom always made it. Whatever the future holds, I know it is richer for the food, the love and the memories I hold.


2 lbs. top round beef, ground twice (ask your butcher to do this for you)

11/2 cups fine bulgur wheat

1 large onion grated

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup cold water

1/4 cup of pine nuts

3 baby (or 1/2 to 1 regular) sweet red peppers, diced small

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Soak bulgur in a bowl of water to soften (about 15-20 min). When soft, drain and squeeze out excess water. Set aside.

In a medium sauté pan, cook two tablespoons of butter, a pinch of cinnamon, red pepper flakes, sweet peppers and pine nuts on medium heat until pine nuts are slightly brown. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl combine pine nut mixture, softened bulgur, beef, and salt and pepper. Mix with your hands. When completely mixed, add the water and continue mixing until no longer runny.

Press mixture in a well-greased 9 x 13 pan and bake for about 20 minutes, or until cooked through.

Cut diagonally to create diamond-shaped pieces, drizzle with olive oil and serve.


1 1/2 cups of fine grain bulgur wheat

2 roma tomatoes, diced small

1 cucumber, diced small (optional)

1 bunch parsley, stems trimmed and chopped fine

1 bunch scallions-whites and greens, ends trimmed and sliced thin

juice of 2 lemons

3 tablespoons of olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Soak bulgur in cold water for about 15-20 minutes, using enough water to cover bulgur by four inches.

Drain water and refill, soaking for an additional 15-20 minutes.

Drain and squeeze excess water from bulgur.

Combine all ingredients and toss gently. Season to taste. Serve chilled.

~Lisa Tiffin

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