It’s easy to capture the flavor of summer in a simple side dish with this Tomato Bulgur Pilaf. Similar to a traditional Armenian rice pilaf, swap out the rice for coarse bulgur and add tons of fresh tomato! This pilaf simply bursts with tomato flavor! And don't worry if it's not tomato season. I've still got you covered.
(This recipe was originally published in August 2014, but was updated with new photos and content in 2020).
Late summer is the height of tomato season. With that in mind, I’m sharing a dish featuring this beloved seasonal ingredient. There are so many ways to utilize tomatoes in cooking. They can be the star of the show or have a memorable cameo on your plate.
This tomato bulgur pilaf is one of my favorite recipes featuring fresh tomatoes. As an Armenian, I have eaten a lot of rice pilaf in my day. I particularly love bulgur pilaf.
As you can imagine with so many cultures in the Middle East and Near East sharing overlapping cuisines, foods often go by many names. My family simply calls this seasonal side dish tomato bulgur pilaf or bulgur pilaf with tomatoes (or it’s Armenian equivalent).
There are some who call it garmir pilaf (red pilaf in Armenian), although that sometimes includes rice versus bulgur. Others call it meyhane pilaf or meyhane pilavi (pub or tavern-style pilaf in Turkish), although that rice dish often includes ground meat and also peppers.
Regardless of what you call it, it’s a fantastic use of tomatoes, and an incredibly flavorful side dish that would complement nearly anything on your menu. It’s also very easy to make, and includes very few ingredients.
What kind of bulgur to use
Use coarse or extra-coarse bulgur which somewhat mimics the size and shape of rice. You can purchase coarse bulgur, extra coarse bulgur, or extra extra coarse bulgur (#3 or #4 bulgur; labels and sizes may vary slightly by brands) in many Middle Eastern markets.
It’s typically either pre-packaged or sold by weight, and is often labeled as Pilavlik Bulgur in Turkish. This essentially translates to bulgur for pilaf. Store your bulgur in the freezer to keep it fresher longer.
I love the flavor and texture of this bulgur. What really takes it over the top is preparing it using fresh tomatoes with all of their juices as the main “liquid” for absorption in pilaf preparation.
How to prep the tomatoes
This recipe was passed down from my grandmother who would peel and dice her tomatoes. I have adapted the recipe to use an easy shortcut that yields incredible results. It’s much faster to grate your fresh tomatoes! This yields a super juicy tomato pulp which is perfect for making tomato bulgur pilaf.
Halve your fresh tomatoes and trim off the stem portion (PHOTO 1). Hold the cut tomato against a box grater set inside a bowl with the cut portion facing the grater, and start grating (PHOTO 2). Your goal is to grate the flesh and discard the skin at the very end.
Start flatting your palm as you get closer to the end (PHOTOS 3-4). You’ll be able to feel beneath your palm when there is essentially no more tomato flesh, and all that’s left is skin (PHOTO 5). Dispose the skins. The final results after grating a few tomatoes will be a bowl full of super juicy tomato pulp and seeds (PHOTO 6). Measure as you go if you want, but you’ll want to yield 4 cups of tomato pulp.
How to make it
In a large pot over medium-high heat, melt 2 ounces (or half a stick) of butter. Add chopped onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes (PHOTOS 7-8). Next, add the tomato pulp and stir (PHOTO 9). Bring it up to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring regularly, for another 5 minutes. Simmering tomatoes can sputter, so make sure you keep mixing.
Add the boiling water, stir, and then add the bulgur, stirring to combine (PHOTOS 10-11). Season with salt and pepper to taste (actually taste the liquid with a spoon!). When the mixture starts to bubble again, lower the heat to low, cover and cook for 15 to 18 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed (PHOTO 12). If using extra coarse bulgur it may take a few minutes longer.
How do you check if it’s done? Well I just use a large spoon to poke straight down into the pilaf and push some apart and then just peek down into the hole I created. If it’s still wet at the bottom, I gently push the bulgur back in place and cover the lid again.
When the pilaf is done, remove it from the heat and let it rest, covered, for a few minutes before serving. Give it a stir and then scoop directly onto plates or into a serving dish. Enjoy!
Serve it with practically anything and you won't be disappointed. It's great with grilled or roasted meats like chicken, beef, or pork. You can serve it with seafood too, or even make it part of a vegetarian meal by highlighting other vegetables on the plate.
This tomato bulgur pilaf is surprisingly light for a starchy side, and it really showcases the flavor and color of the fresh tomatoes. I’ve seen others sometimes include chunks of tomato that seem more like an afterthought as opposed to a true counterpart to the tomato bulgur pilaf. Using the grated tomato yields a homogeneous combination of tomato and bulgur that will blow your mind (and your taste buds).
If tomatoes aren't in season, you can substitute a portion of the grated tomatoes with canned tomatoes. Here's how to do it: replace the grated tomatoes and water in the original recipe with 2 cups of canned crushed or ground peeled tomatoes and 2 ½ cups boiling water.
Other recipes with tomato you may like
- Curried Tomato Salad
- Armenian Grilled Vegetable Salad (Khorovats Salad)
- Chakhokhbili (Georgian Chicken Stew with Tomatoes and Herbs)
- Corn and Tomato Pizza
- Confit Byaldi (Remy’s Ratatouille)
- Spaghetti Sciuè Sciuè
- The Hollywood Brown Derby Cobb Salad
- Pescado a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-Style Fish)
- Browse all Side Dish Recipes
- Browse all Armenian and Middle Eastern Recipes
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Tomato Bulgur Pilaf
- 2 ounces (½ stick) unsalted butter
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 4 cups grated tomato including juices and seeds (about 4 to 5 tomatoes), skins discarded
- ½ cup boiling water
- 2 cups coarse, extra coarse, or extra extra coarse bulgur wheat (#3 or #4 size)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat, add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the grated tomato, bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring regularly, for about 5 minutes.
- Add the boiling water, stir, and then add the bulgur, stirring again to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. When the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 15 to 18 minutes (it can take even longer for the extra extra coarse bulgur to cook—around 25 minutes or so), or until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Remove from the heat and let it rest for a few minutes before serving.
- To grate the tomatoes, cut them in half (trimming the stem portion) and grate them with the cut side against the large holes of a box grater until only the skin is left in your palm. I recommend grating them directly into a bowl to catch all the juices, and then measuring the yield in a large measuring cup.
- If tomatoes aren't in season, you can substitute a portion of the grated tomatoes with canned tomatoes. Here's how to do it: replace the grated tomatoes and water in the original recipe with 2 cups of canned crushed or ground peeled tomatoes and 2 ½ cups boiling water.
- If you want to make this recipe vegan, you can swap out the butter for ¼ cup of olive oil or use vegan butter. Proceed with the rest of the recipe as directed.
- You can store your leftover uncooked bulgur in the freezer for longer storage. Just put the original package of bulgur in a freezer bag and then into the freezer.
*All nutritional information is based on third-party calculations and should be considered estimates. Actual nutritional content will vary with brands used, measuring methods, portion sizes and more.*