The Passover Seder, the meal/ceremony with which Jewish families celebrate the holiday, ends with the line, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Be warned: living with observant Jews in Jerusalem during Passover can be dietetically devastating, because during the week of the holiday, bread, beans, and pretty much any starchy food but matzo and potatoes, are forbidden.
Thus, when my family decided to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws in Israel, we spent a week deprived of most of the glories of Middle Eastern cuisine. So as the sun set on the holiday (Jewish holidays begin and end at sunset), my father-in-law and I hit the street in search of the first open falafel stand we could find. We bought a dozen sandwiches which disappeared with alarming speed.
Falafel has turned into a political controversy, in addition to its role as the Middle East’s most excellent contribution to world snacking. The phrase “Israeli falafel” crops up throughout stands selling these vegetarian delights all across the Americas and Europe. While the frequent importers of these Middle East eats tend toward the purveyors of kosher food who want to keep it real price-wise, variations on these legume fritters stretch all across the Arabic world and into much of near Eastern Asia—Indian pakoras are a distant cousin.
The hullabaloo over this humble snack has overtones of the Arab-Israeli relationship in microcosm. A food that dates back to Old Testament days, falafel has served at the basis of a Ph.D. thesis on how food can reflect nationalism. Early 20th century Jewish settlers, in an effort to fit in with the land more than the culture, eschewed the heavier European foods that kept them warm in the winter back in Bialorussia and Berlin for the lighter, vegetarian fare more appropriate to the actual (as opposed to political) climate of their new region.
But it took Operation Flying Carpet, the rescue of the Yemenite Jews by essentially relocating their entire population to Israel in the early ’50s, to spawn the growth of falafel, a food as popular in Yemen as it was in Cairo or Tel Aviv. The Yemenite immigrants opened up falafel stands the way Starbucks seem to be cropping up now, making the food available in some variation on nearly every street. During the late ’50s, one of the most popular songs in Israel was “And We Have Falafel,” which referred to the little fritters as Israel’s national food.
However, many Palestinians and other Arabs think of this as claim-jumping. They ate falafel for generations before Hertzl proposed resettling the area as a Jewish homeland. As Palestinians and other Arabs emigrated around the world, the “Israeli falafel” available from Toronto to Times Square stuck in their cultural craw. And if such animosity can be spawned by a simple snack food, how ever will the larger issues get settled?
So what is all this fuss about? How can a humble ball of fried beans inspire such passion? If you’ve never experienced falafel, they basically boil (in oil) down to a meatball with the legume of choice replacing the meat. Egyptians tend to favor the fava bean, while the more Mediterranean chick pea wins out in more Mediterranean Arabic areas. As with so much snack food, the advantages of the vegetables are somewhat mitigated by the method of m
Two cans (15-16 oz each) of chick peas, drained
2 cups bread crumbs
1/4-1/2 tsp cumin
1/4-1/2 tsp zataar (or oregano if you can’t find zataar)
Salt to taste
Hot pepper sauce to taste
Pepper to taste
Very hot oil for frying
Four pita breads
Salads to taste
Tahini or Hot Pepper sauce (or both)
In a food processor, add the first group of ingredients (up to the pepper) and grind until the chick peas are coarsely ground and the ingredients are blended. Form the batter into balls or rounded patties and fry in small batches until the falafel are just a tad darker than gold. Drain them and blot them on paper towels.
Pop the pitas in the microwave and heat on high until they fill with air (about 15-30 seconds) unless it’s really, really fresh. Cut the warm, pliable pitas in half and open up to form a pocket. Try not to rip them. Stuff loosely about halfway full with salad, put two or three falafel on top of this and top with the sauce of your choice. Eat with lots of napkins. Makes about 8 chatzi (half) falafel sandwiches.