The Ultimate Guide To Falafel

Falafel in pita
Falafel in pita - uniqueton/Shutterstock

Once a street food unique to the Middle East, falafel has, in recent decades, become a global phenomenon. Patties of deep-fried falafel are now a common sight across the globe and are served in establishments that range from simple roadside stalls to gourmet cafes and restaurants. The product itself has also evolved during this time and is regularly adapted to mirror other popular foods, as exemplified by the ubiquitous falafel burger.

Although perceived by many as simply a delicious food, falafel is so much more. In fact, falafel stands as one of the most important foods in the world due to its status as a national identifier for several nations across the Middle East, including both Israel and Palestine. In this part of the world, ownership of falafel is furiously contested and forms part of larger debates that revolve around land ownership, statehood, and legitimacy. These are weighty subjects for any commodity to bear, let alone a food that is routinely enjoyed by millions of people all over the world.

Falafel's complexity in a socio-cultural sense is matched by the food's culinary nature. Although appearing simple to make, falafel is an extremely difficult food to master, which makes finding and enjoying excellent falafel all the more enjoyable no matter where in the world you happen to be.

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The Origins Of Falafel Are Contested

Egyptian-style falafel in bowl
Egyptian-style falafel in bowl - Middle Eats/YouTube

As is the case for many celebrated foods, the origins of falafel are contested with several countries, including Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, claiming to have invented the dish. There is some tentative evidence that the dish originated in Egypt as a result of British colonialists requesting fried food similar to what they enjoyed in India. However, this evidence is by no means conclusive.

Matters have been further complicated by Israel, which has adopted traditional Arab cuisines, such as hummus and falafel, into its national cuisine. In one sense, this should not be a cause for surprise; many neighboring countries have exchanged culinary traditions over time, and both Arabs and Jews have long enjoyed similar foods in the Levant. That being said, many Arabs, especially those from Palestine, see the Israeli adoption of these foods as a means through which their national identity is being appropriated and eroded.

Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi explained this sentiment in an interview with Wbur: "In the Middle East, there's a small piece of land with two nations fighting over it. Everything is important, including the food [...] It's a very political thing. A Palestinian would say, 'This is our food. This has been colonized.' And an Israeli would say, 'We cook it. We love it. We can share it.'"

Traditionally, It Is Viewed As Street Food

Falafel being sold on street
Falafel being sold on street - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Across the Middle East, falafel is traditionally served as street food and many prominent Middle Eastern chefs, including Itamar Srulovich and Reem Ataya, still view it as such. That being said, both Ataya and Srulovich serve falafel in their own sit-down restaurants in Lille and London, respectively. This is indicative of a growing trend, especially in the West, where falafel is viewed as a respected food that routinely features on restaurant menus. This is also true in the United States; between 2016 and 2020, Datassential estimated that falafel's appearance on American menus increased by an impressive 27%.

The growing prevalence of falafel in restaurants is partly due to America's growing respect, acceptance, and understanding of numerous Middle Eastern cuisines. This was highlighted by chef Ayesha Nurdjaja in an interview with Resy: "When I opened Shuka, soon to be seven years ago, Middle Eastern food wasn't the popular cuisine it is now. We were really taking a leap of faith [...] people are changing, they are educating themselves. Trends in food have a negative connotation, but sometimes it's a good thing."

Different Pulses Can Be Used To Make Falafel

Falafel made with chickpeas
Falafel made with chickpeas - Veliavik/Shutterstock

Two different pulses are used to make falafel: Garbanzo beans and fava beans. The former are predominantly used in cultures from the Levant and are known to give the falafel a slightly dense texture. The use of fava beans is closely associated with Egypt. This pulse yields a lighter falafel called Ta'ameya.

The flavor is not much affected by pulse choice. Instead, the majority of falafel's flavor comes via the inclusion of various herbs and spices. However, falafel made from fava beans tends to be more structurally sound and does not require the addition of binding ingredients such as eggs or flour. Many cooks prefer to get the best of both worlds and opt for a mixture that contains both garbanzo beans and fava beans. That being said, it is the Egyptian variety -- made with fava beans -- that are consistently named the best at competitions.

The reason cultures use different pulses is not known for certain, although it has been hypothesized that it's down to ingredient availability. In an interview, food writer Nawal Nasrallah said to BBC Travel: "I think it depends on what you have and what grows abundantly -- I think chickpeas are more abundant in the Levant, which [is] why they use them. Whereas from ancient times, broad beans were used more in northern Africa -- It's all about economics."

It Can Be Cooked And Prepared In Several Ways

Man deep frying falafel
Man deep frying falafel - Eric Lafforgue/art In All Of Us/Getty Images

It is not just ingredients that can vary from one falafel to another but preparation and cooking techniques, too. The most obvious difference between various falafels is their shape. Generally, falafel is shaped into balls. However, some producers make them slightly flatter. Donut-shaped falafels are rarer but can be found. Popular in Syria, this shape increases the surface area of the falafel, allowing more of a crust to develop. The result is a uniquely crisp falafel.

The texture of the falafel's interior is also controlled by those making it. Some cooks prefer falafel to have a smooth, almost mousse-like texture, while others enjoy slightly coarser interiors. It comes down to personal preference; all cooks have to do is alter how finely the garbanzo beans or fava beans are processed.

As a result of our increasingly health-conscious society, alternatives to the traditional process of deep-frying have also become commonplace. The most used substitute is baked falafel, although falafel cooked in this way lacks the food's trademark crispness. An even healthier, and some argue easier, technique is to cook falafel in the air fryer. By some accounts, this technique creates the texture falafel is known for without the extensive use of oil that's associated with deep frying.

It Is Tricky To Make

Falafel being placed on tray
Falafel being placed on tray - Irine and Andrew/Shutterstock

Falafel is one of those foods that's easy to make but can also be difficult to make at the same time. Every falafel recipe has several steps, each with its own potential pitfalls. The first and most damning mistake is to use pre-cooked, canned garbanzo or fava beans. These result in the finished falafel adopting a pasty, unpleasant texture. Dried beans, which are soaked the night prior to cooking, should be used instead.

Controlling the moisture and coarseness of the mix is of vital importance, as chef Caitlin McMillan explained to Eater: "If there's too much moisture, then the batter will be super loose and not form a ball, and too little will lead to dry falafel. If you under-mix the batter, you won't be able to form a ball. If you over-mix, the batter becomes bouncy." Even when the moisture and texture are well-controlled, some people struggle to make the falafel bind together. Adding a paste of lightly cooked flour and water solves this issue.

Finally, when it comes to deep-frying the falafel, oil temperature is of the utmost importance. Too cool, and the falafel becomes greasy, too hot, and they burn. Cooks should aim for oil to attain a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit before adding their falafel. At this temperature, it only takes the falafel around five minutes to cook.

The Dish Has Gained Global Recognition

Falafel being made in England
Falafel being made in England - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over generations, falafel has spread across the world from its home in the Middle East. Driven by migration, falafel reached Europe in the 20th century and by the 1970s was an established part of some European food scenes, especially Germany's. Falafel also gained popularity in Britain during the same time. Today, it is viewed as a national staple in the country.

As with Britain, the United States has seen falafel hit the mainstream in recent decades thanks to an increased interest in vegetarianism and the food's growing reputation as a healthy fast food. Falafel has become so common in the U.S. that many consumers are unaware of its Middle Eastern origins.

As the Middle East spans the Mediterranean, North Africa, and parts of Asia, falafel's establishment in these areas is a given. That being said, the dish is less prevalent in Eastern Asia and Southern Africa. South America is another area that lacks a robust falafel consumer base with most citizens choosing to enjoy local types of fritters such as Brazil's acarajé, a take on West African akara.

Two Lebanese Brothers Have A Famous Falafel Rivalry

two falafel restaurants from outside
two falafel restaurants from outside - Anthony Rahayel/YouTube

The most famous falafel rivalry in the world is still raging in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Mustafa Sahyoun unwittingly set the wheels of this rivalry in motion when he started selling his falafel on the streets of Beirut in 1933. After years of hard work, Mustapha opened a shop called Falafel Sahyoun on Damascus Street, where both his sons, Zuheir and Fuad, subsequently worked. In 1978, a war with Israel broke out, and Beirut became a warzone. The shop closed, and Mustapha passed away.

Zuheir and Fuad continued to sell falafel in Beirut during the war, moving from location to location as the fighting ebbed and flowed. Eventually, the fighting abated, and the two brothers reopened Falafel Sahyoun in 1992. In 2006, the brothers fell out over undisclosed issues. Fuad left the restaurant and opened a competing restaurant next door, also named Falafel Sahyoun. This restaurant didn't only boast the same name as Zuheir's but even the same menu.

For years, the brothers competed, rarely talking and often angling to outmaneuver one another. It was even reported that Fuad bought a large sign to place in his shop window, displaying a code violation Zuheir had received from the health department. Despite antics such as these, Fuad was forced to close his shop in 2021 after massively increased costs meant his falafel could not yield a profit. Zuheir's victory was short-lived, however, as Fuad's restaurant reopened in January 2022.

Falafel Has A Few Traditional Accompaniments

A falafel pita in hands
A falafel pita in hands - Munchies/YouTube

So far, we have focused on the nature of falafel itself. However, the food is rarely eaten in isolation and is traditionally served stuffed inside a pita or wrap. In these instances, the falafel is usually supported by a few accompaniments. Chief amongst these is tahini, which is used as a sauce mixed with lemon juice, garlic, and water. Chopped salad, consisting of lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, and tomatoes, nearly always tops the falafel, lending the dish a much-needed freshness.

Of course, falafel toppings vary depending on where the dish is being enjoyed, but in most areas, sauces play an essential role. In Israel, hot sauce is used to add some spice. On the other hand, Lebanese falafel is often topped with toum, a mayonnaise-like sauce that features lashings of garlic in place of eggs. In Iraq, a spicy condiment known as amba is preferred. This is made with ingredients including pickled green mangoes, turmeric, and fenugreek, making it an immensely flavorful addition.

There Are Several Famous Falafel Shops In The United States

Outside of Mamoun's Falafel restaurant
Outside of Mamoun's Falafel restaurant - Warren Eisenberg/Shutterstock

Falafel is now an extremely popular food in the United States. As a result, there are numerous falafel shops, stalls, and restaurants operating across the country. Among these are a few establishments that have gained both loyal customer bases and fame through the fantastic work they do. Perhaps the most famous of all American falafel restaurants is Mamoun's Falafel, which has been operating in Greenwich Village, New York City, for over 50 years. Now, with multiple establishments across several states, the Mamoun Falafel brand remains family-owned.

Mamoun's Falafel's fame is thanks to the brand producing excellent food, as one reviewer highlighted on Yelp: "I love this falafel, the portions are perfection, the pita is soft and delicious, and the sauces are copious [...] The staff is polite, quick and to the point -- which I appreciate. [The] quicker I can get this sandwich to my mouth, the better."

In Knoxville, Tennessee, Yassin's Falafel House made headlines not only for its food but also for the sense of community it has developed. Named the "Nicest Place in America" by Reader's Digest in 2018, thanks to owner Yassin Terou's ability to connect with, support, and help every type of person, Yassin's Falafel House has become a beacon of hope in the area. Amongst various other charitable and helpful exercises, Terous has supported local causes, hired refugees, and provided aid to nearby communities that have suffered from disastrous fires.

Falafel's Nutrition Profile Varies

Pile of falafel on plate
Pile of falafel on plate - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

As a versatile ingredient that can be prepared in a multitude of ways, falafel's nutritional profile can change a lot. This makes it difficult for people to discern whether falafel is healthy or not, although the argument can definitely be made that homemade falafel is; a 100-gram serving of homemade falafel is thought to contain 333 calories, 13.3 grams of protein, and 17.8 grams of fat. This marks it as a great source of protein for vegetarians.

When making it at home, fat and calories can be minimized by baking the falafel instead of deep frying it. In an interview with Women's Health, dietician Amy Shapiro endorsed this approach while also providing tips for those keen on deep frying: "I would recommend baking it when you have the option. If frying is what you prefer, then use a high-quality oil that can sustain high heat, like grapeseed or avocado to prevent carcinogen production."

We have seen that falafel is rarely eaten on its own, and when bought from a restaurant with additional accompaniments, the dish's nutritional profile changes alarmingly. Of most concern is the sodium content, which can reach up to 1,500 milligrams per serving, over half an adult's daily recommended intake, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. Those wishing to minimize their salt intake should aim to eat only homemade falafel and avoid sodium-laden pickled toppings.

The Falafel Index Has Been Used As An Economic Metric

Falafel stacked on a dish
Falafel stacked on a dish - Veliavik/Shutterstock

In 1986, The Economist invented something called the Big Mac index. It was used to compare the economic productivity and standards of living of different countries by measuring something known as purchasing power parity. The Big Mac index has since gone on to become an accepted part of economics and is seen as a quick and simple way of examining whether certain currencies are being undervalued or overvalued.

One of the reasons why the Big Mac index is so widely used is because the product is readily available and cheap in most of the world's countries. However, in those places where Big Macs are not sold -- or where they are sold for inflated prices -- the index becomes useless. This is the case in the Middle East, where Big Macs are much more expensive than other foods. Some economists have suggested falafel take the place of the Big Mac when studying Middle Eastern economies, which led to the creation of the falafel index.

When used by Forbes in 2014, the falafel index worked. It highlighted that the currencies of several Gulf nations were undervalued due to associations with the dollar. Elsewhere, it found that the Israeli shekel was being overvalued. Despite this impressive performance, the falafel index did not catch on and has not been widely used since Forbes utilized it 10 years ago.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.