Falafel is a deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both. Falafel is a traditional Middle Eastern food, usually served in a pita, which acts as a pocket, or wrapped in a flatbread known as lafa; “falafel” also frequently refers to a wrapped sandwich that is prepared in this way. The falafel balls are topped with salads, pickled vegetables, hot sauce, and drizzled with tahini-based sauces. Falafel balls may also be eaten alone as a snack or served as part of a meze (appetizers).
Falafel is a common dish eaten throughout the Middle East. The fritters are now found around the world as a replacement for meat and as a form of street food.
The origin of falafel is unknown and controversial. A common theory is that the dish originated in Egypt, possibly eaten by Copts as a replacement for meat during Lent. As Alexandria is a port city, it was possible to export the dish and name to other areas in the Middle East. The dish later migrated northwards to the Levant, where chickpeas replaced the fava. It has also been theorised to a lesser extent that falafel originated during Egypt’s Pharaonic Period or in the Indian subcontinent.
Falafel grew to become a common form of street food or fast food in the Middle East. The croquettes are regularly eaten as part of meze. During Ramadan, falafel balls are sometimes eaten as part of the iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast after sunset. Falafel became so popular that McDonald’s for a time served a “McFalafel” in some countries. Falafel is still popular with the Copts, who cook large volumes during religious holidays. Debates over the origin of falafel have sometimes devolved into political discussions about the relationship between Arabs and Israelis. In modern times, falafel has been considered a national dish of Egypt, the Palestine, and of Israel. Resentment exists amongst many Palestinians for what they see as the appropriation of their dish by Israelis. Additionally, the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association has raised assertions of copyright infringement against Israel concerning falafel.
Falafel plays an iconic role in Israeli cuisine and is widely considered to be the national dish of the country. While falafel is not a specifically Jewish dish, it was eaten by Mizrahi Jews in their countries of origin. Later, it was adopted by early Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Due to its being entirely plant based, it is considered parve under Jewish dietary laws and gained acceptance with Jews because it could be eaten with meat or dairy meals.
In North America, prior to the 1970s, falafel was found only in Middle Eastern and Jewish neighbourhoods and restaurants. Today, the dish is a common and popular street food in many cities throughout North America.
Falafel has become popular among vegetarians and vegans, as an alternative to meat-laden street foods, and is now sold in packaged mixes in health-food stores. While traditionally thought of as being used to make veggie burgers, its use has expanded as more and more people have adopted it as a source of protein. In the United States, falafel’s versatility has allowed for the reformulating of recipes for meatloaf, sloppy joes and spaghetti and meatballs into vegetarian dishes.
Today, falafel is eaten all over the world.
Preparation and variations
Falafel is made from fava beans or chickpeas, or a combination of the two. The use of chickpeas is predominant in most Middle Eastern countries. The dish is usually made with chickpeas in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. This version is the most popular in the West. The Egyptian variety uses fava beans.
When chickpeas are used, they are not cooked prior to use (cooking the chickpeas will cause the falafel to fall apart, requiring adding some flour to use as a binder). Instead they are soaked (sometimes with baking soda) overnight, then ground together with various ingredients such as parsley, spring onions, and garlic. Spices such as cumin and coriander are often added to the beans for added flavour. Fava beans must be cooked, for medical reasons. The mixture is shaped into balls or patties. This can be done by hand or with a tool called an Aleb Falafel (falafel mould). The mixture is usually deep fried, or it can be oven baked.
When not served alone, falafel is often served with unleavened bread when it is wrapped within lafa or stuffed in a hollow pita. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other garnishes can be added. Falafel is commonly accompanied by Tahini.
Falafel is typically ball-shaped, but is sometimes made in other shapes, particularly doughnut-shaped. The inside of falafel may be green (from green herbs such as parsley or spring onion), or tan.
When made with chickpeas, falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and fibre. Chickpeas are also low in fat and salt and contain no cholesterol. Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B, and folate. Phytochemicals include beta-carotene. Falafel is high in soluble fibre, which has been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol.
Falafel can be baked to reduce the high fat content associated with frying. Although baking alters the texture and flavour, it is a preparation technique often recommended to people suffering from such health problems as diabetes.
- 1 cup dried split fava beans, soaked overnight
- 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, minced
- ½ bunch fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Bahārāt, Middle Eastern spice powder
- ¼ cup water
- pure olive oil or canola oil, for frying
- Drain and rinse the fava beans and chickpeas and put them in a food processor.
- Add the onion, parsley, coriander, garlic, baking powder, salt, cumin and spice powder. Pulse, scraping down the side of the bowl, to form a coarse paste.
- Add the water and process until the mixture is gritty but fine and brilliant green.
- Scrape the paste into a bowl.
- In a medium saucepan, heat 5 cm of oil to 175°C.
- Scoop rounded tablespoons of the falafel mixture into the hot oil and fry in small batches for about 2 minutes or until browned and crisp.
- Drain on paper towels set over a wire rack and serve hot, with tahina mixed with yoghurt and a little paprika.