fattush-finished and served copy

It’s nearly forty years since I left Lebanon. There were many things that I hated about Beirut and many that I loved. I still feel the same although much of what I loved is disappearing, like the ambulant vegetable and fruit vendors who sell their produce off wooden carts which they push through neighbourhoods while shouting out their wares. A guy like the sombrero-wearing man below would belt out “yalla ‘ala banadurah, yalla ‘ala khiyar” to let everyone know he had tomatoes and cucumbers which he may have just picked from his fields. I loved listening to their cries and always followed my mother onto the balcony to watch her bargain with the vendor to get the best possible price.

fattoush-cucumber & tomatos cart copy

Fortunately there are still some neighbourhoods (mostly the poorer ones) with ambulant vendors and last year I had a lovely surprise when my charming driver, Jamil who sadly is no longer with us, drove me on the way to the Iranian embassy through a stretch of Ouzayih in West Beirut that was lined with fruit and vegetable carts. Some had the produce piled high with no particular attention to aesthetics while others had very neat displays. I asked Jamil to stop and we went down, him to check the prices — he had a wonderful garden where he grew organic produce which my mother and other neighbours bought from him — and me to take pictures.

fattush-herbs radishes and lettuce cart copy

This was last year and I can only imagine what the place is like during Ramadan. There must be twice as many carts to cater for the nightly feasts that home cooks prepare for breaking the fast. One dish that is always present at Iftar (the first meal to break the fast) in both Lebanon and Syria is fattush, a mixed herbs and toasted bread salad. And it happens to be one of my favourite salads. There are endless variations. Some people use stale bread instead of toasted. Others add green peppers which I object to because the flavour is too strong. I have even seen it made with cabbage down in Tyre.

The dressing also varies but it will always have sumac, a lemony berry that is dried on the branch, then ground. I was lucky on a separate trip to be travelling with Jason Lowe during sumac season in May and here is a picture he took at a vegetable stall on our way back to Beirut from the south where I had spotted sumac being sold on the branch.

fattush-sumac on the branch

It is rare to see sumac sold like this. Usually it is sold already ground or with the berries rubbed off the branch. When whole, the sumac berries are soaked in water and the tart juice is used to make the sauce for kibbeh summaqiyeh, a speciality of Aleppo or the juice is used to season fattush. In fact, a friend who owns Al Falamanki in Beirut insists that it is the only way to season fattush. I don’t agree and I prefer to use ground sumac because by not adding any liquid, the salad stays crisp longer.

Anyhow, I have two ways of making fattush. One which I learned from my mother where I keep the parsley, mint and purslane leaves whole, and only chop the  vegetables while in the other version, which I learned from a friend’s mother, I chop everything apart from the purslane and I add shredded lettuce. This is the version I made today but because I shopped at Waitrose, the mint is coarser than the one I buy in Middle Eastern stores and their organic cucumbers have a very thick skin which needs peeling. And they have yet to start selling purslane. So, no purslane. And no bread. Not because I don’t have good pita in my freezer but because I am permanently on a diet and very rarely put bread in my fattush.

fattush-ingredients and herbs

fattush-chopped ingredients 2 copy

I don’t vary the seasoning though and always use ground sumac, olive oil and salt. And this is when you need to bring out your best olive oil as you will really taste it in the salad. Also make sure to use good sumac. Some of it is mixed with salt or ground with bits of branch to bulk it up. I always bring back mine from either Syria (sadly, this won’t be for a while) or Lebanon. My last batch was particularly excellent! I think it came from Hilali in the souk of Aleppo. Or perhaps it was sent to me by my mother.

fattush-close up of sumac 2 copy


Mixed Herbs and Toasted Bread Salad

This is my friend’s mother’s version which is my favourite now. Serves 4-6

1 medium pita bread, opened up at the seam to have two disks, toasted until golden brown and broken into bite-sized pieces

3 tablespoons sumac

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

400 g gem lettuce, outer damaged leaves discarded, cut across in 1 cm strips

100 g spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

300 g mini cucmbers, sliced in medium-thin half circles

300 g firm red tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces

200 g flat-leaf parsley, most of the stalks discarded, coarsely chopped

100 g mint, leaves only, coarsely chopped

100 g purslane, leaves only

sea salt

Put the broken up toasted bread in a medium bowl. Sprinkle the sumac all over. Add the oil and mix well. This should stop the bread from sogging up quickly once it is mixed with the salad.

Put the salad ingredients in a large salad bowl. Add salt to taste. Add the seasoned bread. Mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately.

©anissa helou

My mother’s Fattush

Serves 4-6

2 medium round pita bread

3 tablespoons sumac

5 tablespoons extra virgin oil

1 tablespoon chilli oil (optional)

200 g flat parsley, washed, dried and leaves picked off stalks

100 g mint, leaves picked off stalks

100 g purslane, leaves picked off stalks

100 g spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

350 g small cucumbers, thinly sliced in half circles

100 g medium red radishes, thinly sliced in half circles

300 g cherry tomatoes, quartered

salt to taste

juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste

Tear the pita bread open and toast it under a hot grill or in an oven until golden brown. Place on a rack to cool. Break the toasted bread into bite-sized pieces and put in a salad bowl. Sprinkle with sumac, add the oil and mix until the bread is thoroughly coated.

Add the remaining ingredients, salt to taste and the lemon juice and mix well together. Taste, adjust seasoning if necessary and serve immediately.

©anissa helou

There is 20 comments on this post

  • This is one of my all time favourite salads, along with the Greek salad.
    I used to love buying sumac from the spice shop in Portobello when I loved there and think Books off cooks even featured Fattoush in one of their recipe compilation books….brings back memories….!

  • Yum, yum… I would love a plate just about now!!! Also I have never seen sumac on the branch. How interesting 🙂

  • Wow I want to make your salad today.
    It looks delicious indeed.
    thanks for sharing the recipes

  • Indian neighbourhoods still have similar produce sellers and their carts, though I suspect these are slowly disappearing too. When we visited my relatives in India, when I was a kid, I too would love this wonderfully direct way of selling and buying, the calls, the smells, the interaction…

    I really enjoyed fattoush during our recent Lebanon trip, really must make it at home!

  • I love fattoush and have most of these ingredients at home! I’m making this this week! 🙂

  • What a wonderful, refreshing salad, and a meal itself – I liked seeing purslane in it, something I haven’t tried before – that sumac looks very inviting too!. Many thanks for sharing your wonderful memories and the recipe.

  • no crushed garlic in dressing? we crush one small/tiny clove with the salt to a paste and add to lemon to dress the salad, and black pepper ..

  • i’ve had it dressed this way too and there are other variations. as you can see my mother uses both lemon juice and sumac but i like it just with sumac. i like my salads crisp and the sumac imparts tartness with no added liquid. great seasoning and this present batch of sumac i have is the best i’ve had in years. i should have bought kilos of it 🙂

  • I do like the idea of just sumac but it must be of optimum quality…we too use both as its often hard to find good sumac with sufficient tarteness in the west…but perhaps very little liquid like one/two tbls spoon of lemon juice with the tiny garlic clove paste would do the trick plus of course the sumac( not only because i like the touch of garlic but lemon helps dissolve the salt evenly)..I have found sumac from Turkey to be the best quality..

  • turkish sumac is indeed v good but you also find v good sumac in syria, lebanon & iran. i think either dressing works. unlike you, i rather like the crunch of the occasional grain of salt if i am using fleur de sel but then i am a salt freak 🙂

  • I’ll miss your fattush!

  • oh, and i will miss your company 🙁

  • I keep stumbling across recipes with sumac. Do you bring it back with you from your travels or can you buy it in London? My mouth is watering reading your post and would love to try Fattush whilst all the ingredients are in season.

  • yes, you can buy it easily. waitrose may even stock it but the best places to get it would be lebanese, turkish or iranian shops. i bring back mine from lebanon, syria or turkey but if i run out i buy it here 🙂

  • Anissa ma vieille cuisiniere Saide qui n’est plus des notres malheureusement et qui etait une grande cuisiniere, l’assaisonnait avec du vinaigre, et non pas du citron, et une gousse d’ail ecrasee…et le servait avec une mdardara!!!!!!Magnifique combinaison.

  • mmm… nous, on servait toujours la mdardarah ou la m’jaddarah avec une salad de choux. saide n’utilisait pas du soumak dans son fattoush?

  • actually this a Levantine salad,,as this also is very typical salad in Palestine and Jordan and made the same..

  • Though it is now 8 years later than your original post, in Athens (Greece, not Georgia USA) fruit / vegetable sellers still come around even in the centre of the city, not pushing carts but driving mini lorries loaded with watermelons, or tomatoes or whatever produce they grow. The same applies to garden stuff: bags of soil, pots, gardenias, geraniums… They announce their wares through a very cheap loudspeaker mounted on the roof of the cab, a horrible, distorted sound. But it gets the job done!

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