TASTE OF THE EAST: Lebanese tabouleh.
Sixteen years ago, Issaaf El-taha left Lebanon to live in Portland, with her new husband, a Lebanese man who had been in her older sister’s class and become a professor of statistics at the University of Southern Maine. Their families suggested the two marry, and after getting to know one another, they agreed.
That first year in Portland, she says, “I was crying a lot, homesick, but he was so good to me.” She missed her family, friends, and Lebanon itself, where oranges, tangerines, and pomelos grow, and neighbors actually spend time together. To make things worse, she couldn’t find the ingredients she needed to make the foods her mother had taught her to cook. Where would she find burgul, laymoon, nah nah, busual, benadura, zeyt zaytoon, meleh, and filfeh asmar? Did they even have them here?
In Waldenbooks, her husband found her a gift, The Complete Middle East Cookbook, by Tess Mallos. Laymoon, El-taha soon learned, is lemon, burgul is bulgur wheat, busul is green onion, benadura is tomato, zeyt zaytoon is olive oil, meleh is salt, nah nah is mint, pat dunnay is parsley, and filfeh asmar is black pepper. She began piecing together an eclectic group of suppliers. She’d get large jugs of Bertolli extra virgin olive oil from BJ’s, crushed fine noodles from a Wal-Mart Supercenter, real Lebanese pita bread, feta, olives, and pickles from George’s Bakery (an hour and a half south, in Methuen, Massachusetts), bags of fine bulgur from Hannaford supermarket, and orange-blossom water from Micucci’s Italian market.
Sixteen years later El-taha’s house in Falmouth is populated with an easy Lebanese-American combo-culture. Country-style checkered curtains hang above a sheer, metallic gold tablecloth from Lebanon. A young girl with long black hair and olive skin comes up from the basement to fetch herself a piece of pizza from the microwave. After stirring a dark green mass of glistening parsley and mint, El-taha calls to the rest of the house in fluttering, staccato Arabic. Two young teenage daughters and her husband gather eagerly around the bowl, spooning tabouleh onto small plates and lifting bites with pieces of romaine.
Naturally, some things have been lost. El-taha missed her mother and mother-in-law during the girls’ births and early years. Wars in Lebanon haven’t usually hindered reunions, but two years ago, one did. And she still hasn’t been able to find fresh grape leaves here for making worok aynib. But some things, too, are gained. El-taha lives on a peaceful, leafy street with a beloved husband and three beautiful American daughters. “After a while, you feel like okay, this is your life. And you are happy.”
Tabouleh from Lebanon
2 huge bunches parsley
1 large handful fresh mint
3 scallions, chopped
3 medium tomatoes, medium dice
about 1 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
one-third cup extra virgin olive oil
one-third cup lemon juice (bottled Forelli works well)
a dash of pepper
romaine lettuce leaves
Finely chop the parsley and mint leaves and stems, except the very thickest. Mix in a large bowl with scallions and tomato. Sprinkle bulgur wheat (it must be the fine kind) on top, covering lightly everything in the bowl. Add lemon juice and olive oil, and stir. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with romaine lettuce leaves. Eat immediately, or refrigerate and serve hours later.
Lindsay Sterling can be reached at email@example.com.