The authentic tabbouleh at La Rotana in Santa Catalina. | Andrew Valente


The influx of Greeks and Cypriots to London in the early 1950s saw the introduction of several Middle Eastern dishes to England. But in those post-war years (some products were still rationed) these dishes were far from authentic.

Middle Eastern ingredients for many dishes simply didn’t exist in London, and those that were available were imported and were expensive — so much so that immigrant restaurant owners couldn’t afford them. That meant, among other things, that many cooks cut corners, and hummus was one of the first dishes to be affected by the lack of an all-important ingredient. This chickpea dip, a Lebanese speciality, is somewhat bland unless it is made with tahini, sesame seeds ground to a paste.

But imported tahini (when you could find it) was outrageously priced and few restaurants used it. Most cooks, even today, never add tahini to their version of hummus. With the passing of the years, all Greek restaurant cooks featured hummus and clients thought it was one of their traditional dishes. But if you look at a book on authentic Greek cooking you won’t see a recipe for hummus. It was never a Greek dish.

The same thing happened to tabbouleh: the Greek and Cypriot cooks got it wrong in a very big way. So much so that the dictionary on my Apple laptop defines tabbouleh as: “An Arab salad of cracked wheat mixed with finely chopped ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, and parsley.”

Generations of British restaurant cooks and their customers (I was one of them) grew up thinking that tabbouleh was a salad of burghul (cracked wheat) speckled with little bits of tomato, onion and parsley.

In fact, though, those immigrant Greek cooks used semolina because burghul was difficult to find, even in London’s specialist shops. Burghul eventually did become available even at local supermarkets.
After leaving England in 1960 I had no contact with British Greek restaurants and their ersatz Arab recipes. Many years were to pass before I came across the genuine tabbouleh salad, mainly associated with Egyptian and Lebanese cooking.

An Egyptian who was living in San Agustín in the 1970s came into the office one day to say he’d like to write a wine column. No one was writing about wine, so I told him to go ahead. He was an accomplished wine taster and based his column on bottles he bought at El Corte Inglés in Jaime III.
He eventually invited me to dinner at his San Agustín home and his Scottish partner said it would be an Egyptian meal as she was a terrible cook and let him have exclusive use of the kitchen at all times.
The first dish on the table was announced as a tabbouleh and I was more than surprised to see a mound of roughly chopped parsley on an oval white plate.

That was when I discovered that those Greek and Cypriot cooks of the early 1950s London had never even seen an authentic tabbouleh. And hundreds of vegetarian restaurants all over the country copied that original mistake well into the 1990s. Even today some professional cooks don’t know that tabbouleh is a light refreshing salad served as one of a selection of mezze dishes in a Middle Eastern meal. So if you order a tabbouleh and are served a dish that is anything less than all green, give it the red light. It’s not a genuine version.

It follows that tabbouleh is one of the easy peasy Middle Eastern mezze dishes, and we should be able to get right every time. But never make it unless you have a nice bunch of very fresh parsley straight from the fridge.

And if you don’t have some really tangy lemons, use limes instead. They, too, should come from the fridge, because in the heat of a Mallorcan summer it’s essential that your tabbouleh be served very cold.

How to make Tabbouleh

Have everything ready for mixing and keep it in the fridge until needed: the parsley leaves plucked from a large bunch, pressed together in the palm of your hand and roughly sliced; one small spring onion chopped as finely as possible; two chopped medium peeled tomatoes, seeds discarded; a little finely chopped mint; two heaped tablespoons of cracked wheat (burghul) soaked in cold water for an hour and well drained.Toss the ingredients together in a suitable bowl until well mixed and stir in some virgen extra olive oil. Mix in lemon juice and salt to taste and serve immediately.

If you want to know what tabbouleh should look like, and how it should taste, you’ll find an authentic one at Rotana in Santa Catalina, Palma’s only Lebanese restaurant. It specialises in fixed-price menus that feature a selection of Lebanese traditional dishes. Rotana is in Calle Aníbal 21 (Tel:971-286078). Check for opening days.

Hummus dip with pita bread.

And now, back to hummus. All my friends cut corners and make three serious mistakes when doing this dish: they don’t use virgen extra olive oil, they leave out a little pounded garlic, and they omit tahini paste.

Their hummus is more than a little bland, and that is hardly surprising. Hummus made with chickpeas and sunflower oil plus salt and pepper, makes a most acceptable dip, especially with warm crisp pita bread. But use virgen extra olive oil, stir in fresh garlic pulp (also to taste) and some tahini, and your hummus will be so memorable your guests will never forget it.

When I first made hummus in the early 1960s, no one had thought of importing tahini paste. It was available in London, but the price was prohibitive and I never asked family or friends to bring me few jars. Making your own tahini, however, is easy peasy because it is simply sesame seeds reduced to a paste. I have always made my own tahini and so should you, because even today tahini paste is somewhat dear.

Making your own Tahini

You can buy plain or toasted sesame seeds from any health food shop and some supermarkets. Mercadona has them at a most reasonable price. I always get the plain ones and I toast them myself.

Put 300 grs of sesame seeds into a dry frying pan of a suitable size and put it on to a low heat. Stir the seeds constantly until they absorb the heat and start to turn golden. The longer you toast them, the greater their final flavour. I aim for a deepish golden colour and then I pulverise the seeds in a coffee grinder I keep for crushing whole spices to make Indian garam masala and other Asian mixtures. Finish off the process by transferring the ground seeds to a glass jar. Stir in enough virgen extra olive oil to give you a pouring consistency. This mixture has a long shell life and there’s no need to store it in the fridge. The seeds sink to the bottom, so the tahini must always be well stirred before use.

You can also use plain sesame seeds for this DIY tahini, but it will have much less flavour — and your hummus won’t be so tasty.

And be sure to remember that your tabbouleh should be as green as a St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City.