Though deep-fried, falafel just feels healthy. It is the vegetarian’s meatball (click here for the full falafel recipe), universally adored by carnivores and omnivores alike, and is a deeply satisfying “meaty” center around which to build a meal. Yet it is simply a ball made of crushed chickpeas, fried in oil until the outside is crisp and brown. What could be simpler? The story behind their origins is not as simple as the recipe to make them. Most folks think of Israeli falafel when they think of this recipe, but historians think it probably began in Egypt, and it can now be found as a staple of all Levantine cuisines—an inexpensive street food that is made most often of chickpeas, but sometimes from fava beans or a mixture of the two. The falafel itself is perhaps not quite as exciting as the array of toppings added to sandwiches of pita or a lafa (flatbread). The toppings include hummus, tahini, yogurt and hot sauce, as well as pickled vegetables, cabbage, parsley, tomato, grilled eggplant, or just about anything that you can imagine.
The word’s origin is from Coptic Egyptian, pha la phel, meaning “of many beans,” which is as good a description as any. The Arabic word falafil means “peppers,” which might sound confusing, but it’s thought to refer to peppercorns, round balls on which falafel is modeled. Sometimes linguistic historical analyses sound like a stretch, as in this case, so perhaps we’ll go with the Coptic version. This origin also makes sense alongside the belief that falafel was first eaten by Coptics (early Christian Egyptians) as a replacement to meat during Lent. It remains particular popular with Copts today, as not only a popular inexpensive street food but associated with religious festivities. The oldest version is thought to have focused on fava beans: ground, pressed into balls or discs, and fried, with chickpeas replacing them when the recipe spread elsewhere in the Levant. It has variously been called a national dish by Egypt (when made exclusively with fava beans), Palestine and Israel (when made with chickpeas, as is most common in the West), and arguments between the nations have occasionally transformed falafel into the rope in a political tug-of-war, as the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association has grumbled about copyright infringement over Israeli appropriation of falafel.
Falafel is not a Jewish dish, but is an integral part of Israeli cuisine, not least because, due to its vegetarian nature, it could be eaten along with meat or dairy meals (observant kosher rules forbid mixing dairy and meat in the same meal). It has long been a favorite of vegetarians as a filling “meaty” alternative to meat.
Beyond my anti-frying tendencies, the dish looks easy enough to make, but in practice it is very easy for my chickpea balls to fall apart. I learned the hard way that it’s important not to cook the chickpeas, or else they won’t stick together in ball form. I also had a lot of trouble making proper spheres out of the raw ingredients, which are traditionally chickpeas soaked overnight, along with a choice of herbs and spices—I went with chopped parsley, coriander, cumin and some chopped scallions. Some research showed a trick for those of us who might suffer intestinally from consuming too many chickpeas: soak them with a bit of baking soda. The baking soda attaches to sugars in the chickpeas and breaks them down, leading to their release of less gas when consumed. So you (and your loved ones) might thank you for the inclusion of a dash of baking soda in the soaking water (though not too much, or you might end up with a soapy aftertaste).
My falafel balls also had a hard time remaining ball-shaped, often disintegrating when dropped into the hot oil. I found it easier to make plump discs than balls. The pros will use an aleb falafel, a special mold, which pumps them out in uniform shape. Without a deep-fryer, I used a pasta boiler, to minimize spatter, but nevertheless got oil burns on my hands and the kitchen ended up well-greased. Some healthier recipes let you bake falafel, but that’s not as authentic. My handiwork came out irregularly cooked, some sides nicely browned and crisp, other more steamed, thanks to my homemade frying attempts, and they were a variety of shapes, none spherical. But they do taste good, and the chickpea component has zero cholesterol, so oil aside, they are indeed healthy. Good enough to make me turn vegetarian…almost.