"falafel is not and never will be restaurant food for me" Itamar Srulovich
Falafel, is now, as one writer said, 'dude food'. Even my granddaughter can make a pretty good version of this Middle-eastern delicacy. I'm not quite sure where it first became popular here in Australia, but I suspect restaurants rather than in the streets. Well we don't really have street food here do we? Not in the sense of Asian or Middle-Eastern or even French street food. Ok - I suppose there are food trucks, which as I said the other day are becoming increasingly diverse in their offerings, and there are more markets with food stalls these days too. But you don't see a lot of people cooking food in the streets. That said, I suppose that we have lots of fast food operations and some of these offer falafel. And just to prove the point here is a video of a stall in a London market - probably the extremely trendy Borough Market, where falafel are made and served in pita. I'm guessing that there are similar stalls here.
There are a massive amount of controversies surrounding falafel - well it's a very ancient food - some say as old as the Egyptians - and I will touch on some of them today, even though I have a nasty feeling I'm repeating myself. But even if I have 'done' falafel before, there is always something new to learn.
I'm talking about falafel, having been inspired by this rather wonderful description by Itamar Srulovich in The Guardian's Word of Mouth newsletter, of eating falafel in Jerusalem, from whence he hails.
"This delicacy needs to be eaten in the street, in the sun, in a pitta stuffed to the brink of explosion with as many falafel balls as can fit and then one on top, chopped salad and cabbage salad, pickles, hot sauce – fiery red from fermented chillies or dark green from herbs – and, of course, tahini to keep it all together and to lubricate. It must drip down your arms and chin and destroy your shirt as you bite. It is worth mentioning that two halves are better than a whole: the half portion has a better falafel/pitta/salad/tahini ratio, but that is a real connoisseur’s trick." Itamar Srulovich
In their book Jerusalem, Tara Wigley describes how Yotam Ottolenghi (and Sami Tamimi) would also indulge in this particular feast in the street when they were children in Jerusalem:
"school day end; a massive falafel sandwich, tahini-stained shirt, no appetite, angry mother."
I believe that this way of eating falafel - mana falafel - originated in the Yemen but I am still a little unclear as to whether eating it in pita bread with all those extra things - obviously variable within a certain range - is the only approved way. In this picture the men lining up for their falafel seem to be just hoping for their paper bags to be filled with the falafels themselves and indeed Sami Tamimi in Jerusalem seems to have collected the elements for breakfast separately:
"He'd take an empty plate to Abu Shukri, a famous hummus spot in the old city, and the man himself would spread the warm paste over the plate, and with much attention, garnish it with herbs, spices and pickled cucumber. The warm falafel and fresh pitas were carried alongside in a brown paper bag." Tara Wigley
Tony Naylor, in his Guardian article How to eat falafel does a good round up of all the various ways you can serve falafels with pita breads. They need to be fairly thick by the way. Thin ones will just fall apart.
And you can see why 'ordinary' people would buy them from specialist vendors because, honestly, if you are going to make them properly it's really a bit of a fuss. You have to start the night before by soaking your chick peas - or dried broad beans (fava), Then you've got to grind up your beans - you don't cook them - and mix with herbs and spices - lots of herbs, before dusting with sesame seeds - and here's the really tricky bit - you scoop the mixture out with a special implement - you can see it in that video at the top - and fry in really hot oil. I'm sure you have to have the oil at the right temperature, and you have to cook it until just so. And if you haven't got the mix just right they will all fall apart as they cook. Not easy. Simple, - all of it, but not easy and not fast. This is fast food that has taken a long time to make - with a lot of skill.
And why would you put all that effort into breakfast? Admittedly I am not a morning person, but I think it would take a special kind of person, or a very browbeaten one to go to all that bother in the morning. Ditto for any of those trendy breakfast foods like fritters, and pancakes, even fried eggs and bacon I have to say. Which is why I'm afraid my kids just got cereal and milk. At the very most some toast. However, I totally understand - if you can afford it - why you might go out for breakfast. One of my past bosses used to get up, go for a swim and then eat breakfast in a café on her way to work. But then I suspect she was a morning person. I also admit that a hotel breakfast buffet, or even a leisurely home provided one when on holiday - as long as some other person has got up and bought the baguettes and croissants - is wonderful. Breakfast is an important meal - I get that, but I have to say I'm not really ready for it, and I'm certainly not ready to cook it. So falafels for breakfast need to be provided by others.
However, you can of course eat falafels at any other time. Indeed most often these days in western societies I think they are eaten as part of a mezze spread or as an appetiser before a meal, or a snack after school. You will find plenty of recipes out there. Felicity Cloake does her usual comprehensive survey of the different options, coming down in favour of a half and half mix of broad beans and chick peas, that quite a few people favour, although almost all admit that Claudia Roden's fava bean version is probably the best - as it is lighter than the chick pea version. And most are also with the Egyptian origin story too, with it spreading from there to just about every corner of the Middle-east.
However, they are not very slimming if you are diet conscious - the legumes in themselves are not slimming, and then you really should deep fry them. Not even shallow frying will do according to Felicity Cloake. She doesn't even mention baking them instead, which some people seem to think works. And I have to say that Donna Hay's baked version looks pretty tempting, but that could just be the result of clever plating and food styling. Still if you don't do it too often it won't be too fattening, and those legumes are very good for you. Besides:
"if you put enough salad on top, it's basically health food anyway." Felicity Cloake
I'm really never sure whether it is, in fact, better to be at least partially authentic and do the bean soaking overnight thing, or whether one should take short cuts, by using tinned chick peas. I'm guessing that this might be what my granddaughter does and you know, they tasted pretty good. So why not? If you have never tasted the 'real' thing on the streets of Jerusalem, then what does it matter? Taking it a step further and substituting or adding other flavours may be a step too far though. Well a step that makes them no longer falafels anyway.
"Be it making “falafel” from sweet potato, pumpkin and beetroot, or serving them on toast with avocado, as a “fawaffle” or in lettuce leaves as a low-carb canape, there is a lot going on in the WTF!?-world of fusion-falafel, which can be dismissed without discussion. To debate it would only legitimise those street food traders and recipe writers who, clearly, in their endless quest for novelty, have forgotten how to step back and ask, seriously, how is this adding to the sum of gastronomic happiness?" Tony Naylor - The Guardian
So stick to soaking those beans, adding lots of gorgeous green herbs, spices, onions, baking powder and then deep frying them before eating straight away and you will be in falafel heaven. What you do after that is up to you. But if runny accompaniments are involved make sure you have protection.