Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everyone Wants a Piece of Falafel

Falafel is kind of a beloved sore spot in the pervasive Palestinian/Israeli culture war. 2005's Oscar-winning short film, the comedic musical West Bank Story imagines the feuding parties of its source material as competing falafel joints: the Jewish-run Kosher King and the Arab-run Hummus Hut. When Larissa Sansour and Oreet Ashery, British-based artists of, respectively, Palestinian and Israeli origin, put together a project to examine the Israeli adoption of Palestinian culture and where the line between adoption and appropriation lies, they conducted it through interviews in London falafel restaurants and named it Falafel Road.

In fact, taking it back a step, you could probably teach an engaging and fairly comprehensive course in the history of the Middle East based entirely on the chick pea. Although some archaeologists speculate that the legume in question was first tamed by people living in northern India, the oldest archaeological evidence of cultivated chick peas comes from Tell El-Kerkh, in Syria, which date to the late 10th millenium BCE. The oldest evidence of the chick pea in Israeli/Palestinian territory dates to only about 1500 years after that (still over 10,000 years ago), at a site near Jericho in the West Bank.

However one might wish to, you can't infer falafel from the presence of chick peas, and foods like that don't preserve as well over time as dry beans (partially because that would require leftovers). So we'll skip ahead just a little to another important event in the history of falafel: the foundation of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century. A large influx of people and a shortage of meat pushed cheap protein like beans to the forefront for everyone in the region. Joan Nathan, author of Foods of Israel Today credits the contemporary, chick pea-based form of falafel to Yemeni Jews. Nathan claims that local falafel recipes in the pre-Israeli period tended towards a blend of chick pea and fava bean (also called broad
bean), as do many Lebanese falafel recipes. The local push away from fava beans, she argues, came as a result of Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish immigrants, many of whom suffered from favism, a serious, genetically-based enzyme deficiency that makes fava bean consumption (among other things) cause severe anemia. Local Palestinians claim that the only change to falafel is the Israeli flag on a toothpick stuck in it. Aziz Shihab, the Palestinian-American author of the cookbook A Taste of Palestine, wrote to a falafel-slinging Israeli restaurant in the States, "This is my mother's food, this is my grandfather's food. What do you mean you're serving it as your food?" Interestingly, yet a third claim on the provenance of falafel maintains that it was developed by Coptic Christians in Egypt for Lent, during which many Christians traditionally abstain from eating meat. Egyptian falafel, which they usually call tamiyya, is typically made entirely from fava beans rather than chick peas. Susan Molthen, executive chef of Bay Area Egyptian restaurant Al-Masri says, "Every region, city or country in the Middle East has it, but it's all derivative; they put their own spices and flavors into it."

I'm not going to try to make any conclusive claims about who originally invented the falafel; food is an artistic pursuit that demands an essential tension between the established and the subtly innovative and at the same time is a projection of culture deeply tied up in people's sense of identity. The truth is that it belongs to all of these people, but that their attachment to it doesn't make it belong to the others any less. It's yours if you make it, too, but significantly more so if you start with a bag of chick peas than if you start with a box of falafel mix. Because all of the many claimants can agree about that being an abomination.

The process isn't hard, given a little forethought and a food processor; it requires overnight soaking of dry chick peas (or at least several hours), but the process from there amounts to throwing everything in the food processor and buzzing it into a grainy paste, rolling it into balls and, finally, frying them. Deep-frying is traditional, but you can squash them into patties and pan-fry, too. Beyond that, all it requires are a few accoutrements: flatbread, fresh vegetables and tahini sauce. I also included some pickled radish after reading a number of recipes that suggested pickled vegetables, most commonly mango or turnip. Additionally, you can freeze the mixture uncooked, after rolling it into portioned balls: lay raw falafel on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or plastic wrap, cover lightly and freeze until the falafel is frozen enough to hold its shape. Transfer to a freezer bag, then pull out a couple at a time as you want them.


vegan, optionally gluten/grain-free
makes 15-20 falafel
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked
  • ½ large onion or 1 small onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh parsley (a small handful)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 4-6 Tblsp bulgur* (optional)
  • oil for frying (I fry in ½-1" peanut or canola oil in a cast iron skillet on med. high heat)
  • *Gluten/grain-free advisory: Bulgur is a wheat product. It adds a really nice texture and is nominally there to aid in binding the falafel, but many traditional recipes are totally grain free, so feel free to omit this if you don't eat it or simply don't have it.

To soak the chick peas, you can either set them up the night before or start an hour or two before you want to serve. Put the chick peas in a large bowl or pot and cover with 2-3 inches of water. You can let them sit overnight or bring them to a boil for 2-3 minutes, turn them off and wait an hour or two. I've gotten better results with the overnight soak, but the expedited soak works fine if you decide you need to eat falafel today and give a far better result than canned, cooked chick peas.

Drain and rinse chick peas, prep ingredients as indicated and grind in food processor to a grainy paste. Roll into balls about 1½ in. in diameter (may require squeezing to hold together). Heat oil in pan over med-high heat until a little water sizzles and pops aggressively and put as many balls of falafel as you can at one time into the pan. I typically use my smaller, 8" cast iron skillet to do this. It fits 8 or 9 at a time, as they can be pretty close together, and uses up a lot less oil than do the larger pans I usually think of first. Fry until deep brown on one side, then turn. Drain on newspaper or paper towel. You can also put in just enough oil to coat the bottom, flatten the balls a little and fry them that way. It's not quite the same, but somewhat more practical if you're only frying up enough for one or two people.

The Sides

yogurt-tahini sauce:

  • 1 c plain greek yogurt (used 2% milkfat)
  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 5-6 mint leaves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 c. water

Tahini Sauce:

  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • Zest & Juice of 1 lemon (or 3-4 Tblsp. bottled lemon juice)
  • 1/4. c. water
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt
  • optional:
  • ½ tsp. hot smoked paprika
Both of these also make great vegetable dips. In fact, it's worth cutting up some extra veggies and putting them out with the sauce for diners to munch on while they're waiting for their falafel.

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