Breaking the Rules of Traditional Middle Eastern Fattoush Salad

From Gaza to Lebanon, every chef makes fattoush, the classic Arab salad with pieces of pita mixed in, a little differently, and so can you.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

Of all the dishes made with days-old dried bread, fattoush is the one I go back to time and again. Fattoush is a simple vegetable salad from the levant that makes use of dried, toasted or fried pieces of pita bread for added body and flavor, not unlike the Italian panzanella. Fattoush varieties, from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, are usually pretty much the same: you start with a simple Arab salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, add a handful of herbs, olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice and spice generously with sumac. The salad is then mixed with toasted pieces of pita bread to absorb all the goodness. It’s so good.

In a typical Israeli manner of keeping it fun and breaking every culinary tradition, I added French feta cheese to my salad and used the widely available pita chips instead of the old pita bread. They have just the right crispiness to them, and you can skip the stage of toasting or frying them.

(On a side note, turns out it’s not all that easy to deliberately dry your pita, as I discovered last week as I was trying to prepare for this article. Twice the pitas I left on the counter to dry were thrown to the trash by a sanitary-obsessed family member. A third one, already dry, was eaten by my son.)

“But that’s not how you make fattoush,” told me my fellow-chef Mahmud Abulhawa. His mother, he said, used to soak the old pita bread in a little water, squeeze all the water out and then crumble it into a bowl. She would drizzle olive oil on the pita and top it with chopped vegetables, herbs and sour pomegranate juice. She would then gently mix the salad and serve.

That was a version of fattoush I’d never heard of. I asked Laila El-Haddad who wrote the Gaza Kitchen Cookbook, but she hadn’t heard of it either (and took a note to check it for her next book, which I hope won’t take too long to come out). But then I found that in her New Book of Middle Eastern Food book, Claudia Roden mentions that the old-style version of fattoush was exactly the one Michael had described. The toasted pita was soaked in a little lemon juice and water before adding them to the salad.

Check out the two versions. Tomatoes are just reaching their prime and fattoush is the perfect use for them, all summer long.

Fattoush salad with feta and pita chips

This may sound obvious, but the feta you choose should be really tasty. The flavor of the salad depends a lot on the feta’s quality, so make sure it’s a kind you like. I use Valbreso’s French feta, which is not kosher and not even real feta (since real feta can only come from Greece), but it crumble nicely and is not as strong as some of the other varieties. Valbreso’s feta is available at Whole Foods. There are also many tasty Israeli feta varieties, at kosher markets and at Trader Joe’s.

Some pita chips work better than others in this salad. You want the chips to be thick enough to withstand the liquids in the salad longer. I find that Stacey’s pita chips from Costco work best (they’re slightly thicker than those the brand sells at regular markets).

Sumac is available in Middle Eastern markets and some kosher markets.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3 medium tomatoes, in 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 lb. feta in 1/2 inch cubes
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons sumac
3 oz. pita chips

Directions:

1. Put tomatoes, onion and feta in a large bowl. Add lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and sumac and toss gently. Add the pita chips just before serving, toss again and serve.

Old-Fashioned Fattoush Salad

Let the pita bread stand in the open air for a few days, until all the moisture is out. If you’re ready to make the salad, but the pita is still elastic, you can toast it in low temperature oven of 250 degrees until it’s dry.

Pomegranate syrup is available at Middle Eastern markets and some health food markets.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 - 2 pita breads (3 oz.), days-old and dry
3 medium tomatoes
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 Persian cucumber, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 serrano pepper, finely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoons sumac
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons pomegranate syrup
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

1. Break the dried pita bread into small pieces and put in a bowl. Cut the tomatoes in half and using your hands squeeze all the juices and seeds on top of the pita. Keep the tomatoes. Drizzle the lemon juice on top of the pita, add the minced garlic, mix well and set aside. Make sure all the pita pieces are wet. Let stand for 10 minutes.
2. Chop the seedless tomatoes into 1/2 inch cubes and put in a serving bowl. Add cucumber, red onion, mint, serrano pepper (if using) and sumac and mix. Crumble the wet pita bread into the salad. Drizzle with olive oil and pomegranate syrup and mix. Let the salad stand for another 10 minutes, this will allow the pita bread to absorb all the juices from the tomatoes.
3. Add salt, mix, adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

Old-fashion Fattoush saladCredit: Vered Guttman
Fattoush Salad with fetaCredit: Vered Guttman

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