Quintessential Middle-eastern

Updated: Nov 17, 2021


This is a lucky dip post - I would have written about fish and chips because we were out for a pub lunch today - a commemoration for one of David's work colleagues who died a year ago. So I chose fish and chips for my lunch - I never get to eat fish and chips these days. And they were lovely. But I have 'done' fish and chips before. And I couldn't think of anything else, so I have lazily turned to a lucky dip.


The dish chosen is Bulgur and Chickpea Salad, from Claudia Roden's lovely book Arabesque, which covers the food of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. This dish is from Lebanon. She calls it Safsouf and her introduction is as follows:


"This rustic salad from the Bekaa Valley does not feature on the standard restaurant menu. It began originally as the leftover meatless filling for vine leaves. Make it with fine-ground bulgur."


I confess to being marginally underwhelmed by my choice, but of course, as always, there is a little more to this dish than meets the eye. Plus a couple of mysteries that I have not solved - in those couple of lines.


My first mystery is the Lebanese name she gives it - safsouf. When I googled 'safsouf' what mostly came up were recipes for a similar but different dish - a cabbage and bulgur pilaf, which is described by one of the bloggers with a recipe thus:


"Plain and rustic, this dish is from rural areas in Lebanon; it is thought to have been the precursor to tabbouleh, since it is a bulgur pilaf scooped up in a cabbage leaf. It contains chopped nuts, onions, bulgur and cabbage. It lends itself to some sprucing up with spices or a dash of pomegranate molasses." Joumana Accad - taste of beirut


It's a bit more complicated than Claudia Roden's but I guess the basic idea is the same. Interestingly it mentions tabbouleh as a descendant of the dish, and Claudia Roden claims that hers comes from a vine-leaf filling. Maybe this is a family tree. Be that as it may, the Google world obviously thinks that safsouf is the cabbage and burgul thing - no chickpeas in sight. And yet we know that Claudia Roden is a meticulous researcher. Some of her books are really very scholarly. Against that are the words of someone who is from Lebanon. So who is right about safsouf. Go figure. And besides - do we care?


Mind you if you google chickpea and burghul salad you get quite a few recipes. Interestingly though many of these are not from Lebanese sources but from trendy food sites. And I have to say that when I looked at some of them it seemed to me that some were directly pinched from Claudia Roden. They even used her introductory words - with no acknowledgement of where they came from.


Last mystery - also sort of unimportant - Claudia Roden says to use fine-ground bulgur. The other recipes specified medium-ground. Use what you have I say.


It's a very simple dish - basically soaked bulgur, dressed with a lemony, garlicky dressing and mixed with a can of chickpeas. Plus parsley and mint - quite a lot. So very, very Middle-Eastern don't you think? Ancient but modern too. Well canned chickpeas for a start. I'm sure there are chefs - maybe Greg Malouf for example - who will insist that cooking your own chickpeas makes a huge difference. But if Claudia Roden can use a can, then so can I. And I'm willing to bet that not so long ago burgul was not quite as easy to use as it is today - like couscous. But as she says in her introduction to the book:

"The modern generation has less time to spend in the kitchen and is part of the global society with the same interests in new trends and concerns about healthy eating as we have in the west. They feel they can do things in a different way without losing their age-old traditions, and the the new approaches do not have to kill the old. I love tradition and respect cuisines that have a past are part of an old civilisation - and that is what this book is about. But cooking does not stand still, it evolves, and I want to celebrate tradition whilst reflecting the changes. For me, what matters is what makes the food more delicious and appealing and also easier and more accessible."


Middle-Eastern is one of the main inspirations for the dishes we cook these days is it not? I'm sure we all have a can or two of chickpeas in the cupboard. Such a versatile ingredient. If you haven't got a can buy one tomorrow and then whip up some hummus in one minute, if you do nothing else with them. Lemons, parsley, garlic, mint, olive oil - we've got all of those too, and we've probably got some burgul tucked away in the back there as well. Tabbouleh is wonderful - and this dish is even simpler.


So next time you are asked to bring a salad to a gathering of friends, try this one. It will only take you about five minutes. And buy that book if you can find it. It has heaps of wonderful recipes in it.

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