We were recently invited to a potluck lunch with an ingenious theme: “New Foods.” The host wanted guests to bring foods that would most likely be new to him, and hopefully the other guests. I gave the challenge a lot of thought. I eat a lot of weird things, so I had plenty of options. But I wanted the food to be new to me as well, at least in preparation if not in flavor. So my thoughts immediately turned to Syrian food, which contains many familiar elements of other Middle Eastern cooking, but often goes a little more savory and tangy than sweet.
While most people are familiar with some Middle Eastern flavors, I often find that Syrian food, especially the cuisine originating in Aleppo, is really unknown outside of that ethnicity. That probably has to do with the fact that most Jewish Syrians live in the New York area, and there are very few Syrian restaurants. In my family, all the best cooks cook for family functions and their homes are like exclusive restaurants, though none of them cook professionally. I think this has to do with the way that cooking for people you love might be different than cooking for customers. What it amounts to though, is that unless you have a Syrian friend, you probably won’t get to taste a lot of the more unique Syrian dishes.
I grew up eating Syrian food, but even still there are many dishes that were not often in my family’s repertoire. Several years ago, my mother gave me this beautiful book that I’ve mentioned here before, called, “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” by Poopa Dweck. Ever since getting the book I’ve really wanted to cook something with tamarind paste. It’s a flavor in one of my all time favorite Syrian dishes, Laham b’Ajeen which is sort of like a tiny pizza with savory sweet and sour minced meat on top instead of cheese and sauce. Since I have those fairly often, I wanted to make something different that would highlight the tamarind flavor for people who may not have tasted it before.
That’s where bazargan comes in. Bazargan is a salad made of bulgur, and flavored with tamarind, onions, cumin and Aleppo pepper. Bulgur is cracked wheat and can be used in similar ways to couscous, but it has a nuttier flavor and a firmer texture. Nutritionally it is high in fiber and other vitamins and it cooks just as quickly as couscous. I love the stuff. And so did the guests at the party.
Recipe: Bazargan, Tangy Tamarind Bulgur Salad
Makes 4-6 servings.
- 1 cup bulgur, I like it to be coarse, though fine is probably more traditional
- 1 small onion, or 1/4 cup, finely chopped
- 3 tbs lemon juice (about 1 lemon’s worth)
- 8 tbs tamarind paste*
- 2 tbs tomato paste (optional)
- 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
- 4 tbs good olive oil
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- dash of crushed red pepper or Aleppo pepper, depending on your spice tolerance
- salt and pepper to taste
- parsley, chopped – garnish (optional)
- Soak the bulgur for 15 minutes in hot water, enough to cover the cracked grain. It helps to put the bulgur right into whatever container you plan on using. After the 15 minutes, pour out as much of the water as you can.
- Add all the rest of the ingredients, combine and taste. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to let the flavors soak in. Garnish with parsley before serving if you’d like.
Enjoy as a side to almost any dish, as a dip alongside hummus or other dips, or inside a pita with some fresh greens.
*I find it hard to find Syrian tamarind concentrate, and it is often very expensive when I do find it. Indian tamarind concentrate seems to be more prevalent in my area. You can use that instead, but you’ll need to reduce it to get it to the right consistency. It should be so thick that it doesn’t fall off a spoon, almost like peanut butter. For this recipe you’ll want 8 tablespoons of that thick tamarind paste.