The ABCs of Falafel: Ancestry, Basic Recipe & Creative Spin-Offs
Since the beginning of time, there have been countless disagreements over boundaries and borders, Gods and idols . . . and food. Yes, even something as mundane as food can elicit strong emotions. For example, did you know that in 2008 chickpeas became a political hot button? The president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists filed a lawsuit against the nation of Israel for food copyright infringement. This, dear friends, is known as The “Hummus Wars.”
To further promote national pride, the government of Lebanon petitioned the EU to have hummus classified as a uniquely Lebanese food. Of course, a battle over whose bean dip reigns supreme can only be settled in the kitchen. In January 2010 Israeli cooks assembled the largest plate of hummus, a staggering 4,082 kilograms. Not to be outdone, 300 Lebanese chefs retaliated with a Guinness World Record plateful (actually it was a satellite dish) weighing in at 10,450 kg. To this day, Lebanon is undefeated.
The 2008 debate over hummus was repeated, in Groundhog Day fashion in 2010 with the falafel kerfuffle. According to Haaretz.com:
300 Lebanese chefs fried 5 tons of falafel balls. Coincidently, only two weeks later in New York City, an Israeli chef managed to fry a 24 lb. falafel ball. Not appetizing. So who’s right?
Falafel most likely originated in Egypt (though others claim it comes from India), where it is called ta’amiya and is made from fava beans. Jews who lived in Egypt and Syria where exposed to falafel for centuries. Does that give them the right to use it then in their new country? Falafel is so synonymous with Israeli food that the Israeli Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs has even asked Israelis to explain to people abroad that Israel has plenty more to offer, and that Israelis do not eat falafel and hummus three times a day!
The Falafel Kerfuffle
And then there's what I've termed the Palestinian conflagration, those who feel that an Arab food has been appropriated by those "across the border and that conflict will probably never be resolved" (my quote, not that of anyone else). Jodi Kantor expressed the problem so eloquently in her July 10, 2002, article in the New York Times:
It's nice to think that sharing a cherished food brings enemies together, easing tension and misunderstanding. But the world's rawest conflicts can include disagreements over common foodstuffs. . . . Jews and Arabs argue about falafel in a way that reflects the wider conflict, touching on debates over territory and history. 'Food always migrates according to immigration and commerce,'' said Yael Raviv, an Israeli student at New York University who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Israeli nationalism and cuisine. ''But because of the political situation, falafel has taken on enormous significance.' ''
What Is Falafel, Anyway?
Perhaps some of you have never tasted falafel, or don't even know what it is. We start with raw chickpeas which are soaked overnight to soften them, and then they are ground. The resulting mash is mixed with garlic, parsley, cumin, and coriander. The fragrant dough is then formed into balls or patties and deep-fried. It has become quite popular in recent years because chickpeas offer nutrients, fiber, are gluten-free, and are a great source of non-animal protein.
Basic Falafel Recipe
- 2 cups dried chickpeas
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 cup fresh parsley leaves (no stems)
- 3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (a few small stems are OK)
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon coriander
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 2 teaspoons flour
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- oil for frying
- Place the chickpeas in a medium-sized bowl. Cover with enough cold water so that the level of the water is two inches above the chickpeas. Stir in the baking soda. Soak at least 18 and up to 24 hours. Drain and pat dry.
- Place the drained chickpeas, onion, garlic, fresh herbs, spices, flour, and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor. Process until everything is finely minced and well mixed.
- Scrape the mixture into a container, seal, and chill in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or overnight. This will help it to stick together when you cook.
- When ready to cook stir the baking powder into the falafel mixture. Shape into patties (this recipe should make about 24).
- Heat 3 inches of cooking oil over medium-high heat. Fry the patties, just a few at a time, for 4-5 minutes or until golden brown.
- If you prefer to not deep-fry, you can bake the falafel in a 350-degree oven on a lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet for 15-20 minutes, turning once after 8 minutes.
- Raw falafel patties can be frozen for up to one month and then cooked from frozen.
Fun Falafel Spin-Off Recipes
What can you do if you want a healthy (not deep-fried) falafel, but the oven-baked version just doesn't give you all the crispy crunchiness that you desire? Bake your falafel in a non-stick waffle iron.
Pure genius, right?
Sierra shares her own recipe for falafel waffles, but I think it would be OK to use the one provided above. Follow her directions for heating and prepping the waffle iron and for how long to cook your "falaffels."
This isn't a salad with cooked, crumbled falafel. It's more fun than that. This healthy salad is full of falafel ingredients. You start with chickpeas (of course), add plenty of fresh parsley and cilantro, dice some tomatoes for color, and make a tahini dressing spiced with garlic and cumin. The original recipe calls for bulgur wheat for added taste and texture. You could use couscous in place of the bulgur wheat, or make it gluten-free by using quinoa.
Bianca shares her own recipe for homemade falafel and then simmers them in a curry sauce. I could eat a bowl of the sauce all by itself; it's made of coconut milk and tomato puree with warm notes of ginger and garam masala.
Of course, you can use your own falafel or ready-made from the grocer, but Bianca warns that if they are too soft they might collapse in the simmer sauce. Warming the falafel and the sauce separately is probably your best option.
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© 2020 Linda Lum