A Considerable Dish

Rich in flavor and heritage and easy on your pocketbook, John Thorne, author of Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook, explains why the falafel has persevered. 

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/KellyCline

Falafel: delectably crunchy nuggets of ground chickpeas and spicy seasonings, served in a pita, doused with tahini sauce and smothered in add-ons that range from chopped salad to pickled vegetables to a generous dose of the fiery Yemenite condiment called zhug.

Eaten by itself, a falafel is a tasty but carbohydrate-intensive mouthful—a few can go a long way. It is as the foundation of a sandwich that they come into their own. When I ate falafel for the first time, I was taken aback by the amount of silage they heaped in—until I started to eat. Granted, I had to do a lot of chewing, but it was all delicious and left me happy and full, if also a little confused. To habitual carnivores like myself, a falafel sandwich can provoke a feeling of cognitive dissonance—the gustatory equivalent of being forced, after a lifetime of doing the opposite, to read from right to left.

Although falafel is regularly described as “the Israeli hot dog,” that comparison can be taken only so far. True, like the hot dog, falafel is ideally suited for a street vendor to prepare and a strolling diner to consume. Each comes wrapped in its own kind of bun; each allows the addition of a range of condiments to substantially enhance the experience of eating it. At this point, however, the two radically diverge—as can be seen by the very different nature of those eater-applied additions.

The hot dog is about meaty succulence; in fact, it is so meaty and so succulent only the most intensely flavored condiments can hope to improve on it. Hence, the hot dog vendor’s standard offerings of mustard, relish, ketchup and sauerkraut, sometimes even bacon and cheese. The falafel, however—and I say this intending no disrespect—is a meatball made without the meat. Nutritious, yes. Delicious, yes. It possesses both those qualities in spades. But when it comes to succulence, meaty or otherwise, the falafel is simply a nonstarter.

This is why an order of falafel topped with, say, a ladle of hot chili is as hard to imagine as a hot dog served in a bed of salad greens. Appetite coheres around the two in almost entirely opposite ways. Thus, while to those of us used to having a piece of meat as the focal center of a fast food meal, the falafel vendor seems suspiciously like someone trying to sell us the crust while withholding the fried chicken, to his regular customer the crunchy falafel balls are less the focal point of the meal than its signal treat—the plums in the plum pudding.

More accurately still, they are equivalent to the toasted croûtons at the salad bar. In fact, if you replace the salad bowl with a round of pita, what you have is so much like a falafel sandwich as to make no difference—the mix of fresh and pickled salad ingredients (onion, tomato, lettuce, cucumber, corn relish, three-bean salad, marinated mushrooms), the creamy soak of dressing, and, scattered throughout, those big, greasy, garlicky, Parmesan-and-herb-sprinkled crusts.

As with falafel, a salad bowl full of croûtons, no matter the amount of dressing you poured over them, would not be especially—or even perversely—satisfying; it is not the salad ingredients that serve the croûtons, but the reverse. And this is why, in every narrative on the subject of falafel, it is ultimately the “salad” that turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the story.

Given the age and simplicity of falafel, its exact origins are necessarily somewhat obscure. The Egyptians, and particularly the Coptic Christian Egyptians, claim it as their own, making it with dried white fava beans (ful nabed) and calling it ta’amia. Claudia Roden, in her Book of Middle Eastern Food, writes that during Lent, when they are forbidden meat, Copts make large amounts daily, giving away any leftovers as a form of penance. Even so, such croquettes have long been familiar food in Lebanon and Syria—again, made as often with ful as with chickpeas—and they are said to have been brought to Israel by the Yemenite Jews, who played an important part in shaping the Middle Eastern flavor of that nation’s cuisine. In fact, falafel vendors were present at Israel’s very first Independence Day celebration, on May 14, 1947, as evidenced by this excerpt from an Israeli newspaper article of the time:

Entire Sephardi families arrived at Zion Square and the other major squares, set themselves up with their kids and their food right there on the ground, and spent most of the day there among the other celebrants. Many peddlers showed up and sold sandwiches, crackers, cakes, falafel, peanuts, candy, gum, and more.

Such scenes caused the government to consider banning falafel vendors as lowering the tone of this important patriotic event. Instead, falafel became the food associated with that holiday. And why not? European immigrants to Israel took to falafel for the same reasons that settlers here fastened on to corn on the cob as a celebration of national identity: it was tasty, inexpensive, and about as easy to assimilate as anything in this brave new world.

Jews have other reasons to be drawn to falafel. Because of its vegetarian composition, it is classified as “pareve” under Jewish dietary laws, meaning that it can be eaten with either a meat or a dairy meal and—equally importantly—before or after either, a welcome quality in a snack. (Although meat can be eaten soon after most dairy meals, observant Jews may wait as long as six hours after eating meat before allowing themselves any dairy products.) Another reason for falafel’s popularity is that, in combination with the toppings served with it, a single order provides a filling and nutritious meal at very little cost. This means that in a country much given to socializing in public places, it is possible to sit down with a friend for a leisurely bite without any pain to the pocketbook. It also means that teenagers, in Israel as everywhere always famished and footloose, are able to gorge themselves to their heart’s content. Indeed, they have transformed that gorging into a display of adolescent cool, as Gloria Kaufer Greene explains in The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook:

Israeli teens are masters at skillfully stuffing so much into their pita sandwiches that the doughy pocket seems on the verge of bursting. They push in the salad with a vengeance, until the falafel balls themselves are a mere pittance, squashed almost into oblivion. These teens then eat these meal-size sandwiches while walking and chatting, losing nary a lettuce leaf in the process. Tourists, on the other hand, sparsely fill their own loaves, but still leave behind a telltale trail of chopped vegetables and dressing.

The acquisition of the mastery necessary to adroitly devour an overstuffed falafel sandwich has certainly done its part in creating a shared sense of identity among Israelis. As Robert Rosenberg writes nostalgically in an essay on the demise of the hatzi-mana (“half-portion”— i.e., a half instead of a whole pita, with fewer falafel):

It was the most appropriate thing to eat while sitting on the iron bars of sidewalk railings. This posture, which required an adolescent agility and balance, was mastered by whole generations whose financial resources were limited to a weekly movie, the bus ride back and forth, and the hatzi-mana that could only be eaten without spoiling clothes by adopting that same posture.

Perhaps because I am part of such a generation myself, that phrase “eaten without spoiling clothes,” with its wealth of connotations (good clothes were next to priceless and had to be carefully protected, without displaying any appearance of doing so), conjures up a lost universe of white sport coats, Saturday evening dates, hot summer nights, snack bars with sliding-screen service windows and yellow outdoor bug lights, and hot dogs consumed at a casual but meticulously calculated forward tilt.

However, it takes a stretch of imagination for me to recast the scene with a salad-stuffed pita replacing the hot dog in a bun. Hot dogs, packed as they are with protein and fat, possess an aggressive potency, a regal swagger. They may be messy and cheap, but they still let you nosh at the top of the food chain. With falafel, if you want the same feeling of satiety, the operative word is “graze.” It isn’t as if you feel forced to do this, as I learned when I ate my first falafel sandwich. Without the meat, the appetite for all the vegetation is somehow just there. Even so, the notion of teenage swagger attaching itself to prowess at managing a load of salad…well, it really does stand the world on its head. Falafel, it turns out, is not only delicious and filling—it can also make you think. And that’s the part of the meal I’m chewing on still.