There’s a war going on that’s not breaking news.
It’s between the Israelis, Greeks, and Palestinians. Add Coptics, Lebanese, and Jordanians in addition to the Middle East or Mediterranean advocates. They’re battling for the rights to falafel and politics has crept into the recipe.
Israelis call falafel their “National Food.”
Palestinians insist that the Israelis stole it from them.
Lebanese claim it as their own.
The bottom line – all falafel is not the same.
Basic falafel is a ball made from chickpeas or fava beans and mixed with various herbs and spices. It’s usually fried and served as a street food, in a pita bread with vegetables, or a complete meal with salad and hummus (a paste made from chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice).
The recipe reflects where it’s made.
According to Israeli Shulamit Ben Horin, “Falafel recipes in the south (Israel and Egypt) make it savory with onion and parsley. In the north (Lebanon and Syria) they tend to make it more pungent with cinnamon and nutmeg. There’s a very good Arabic spice called ras al-hanut [a mixture of over a dozen spices] that blends flavors in meat, rice, or cakes. Lebanese falafel is like ras al-hanut – a savory dish that smells like dessert.”
Who was first?
No one knows for sure but there are a lot of colorful stories. Historian’s Cookbook suggests that “the staple dish of the Middle East is as contested as the region, with different peoples claiming it as their own.”
The story – or legend – began thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt. There are no facts that prove or disprove the claim. Inside the Temple of the Valley of Kings in Luxor, inscriptions explain how to “shower” or rinse fava beans, add vegetables, and cook.
Coptic Christians, the biggest minority in Egypt and the largest Christian population in the Middle East, disagree. They believe it was invented as a nutritious, meat-free food for Lent.
It wasn’t until 1882 that falafel made it into print. The British invaded Egypt to protect their trade and financial interests. Also known as the Anglo-Egyptian War, the British maintained control until after World War I when Egypt declared independence. The city of Alexandria had the largest concentration of troops and the soldiers loved tamiya (falafel). The recipe spread down the Red Sea coast to Yemen and across the Mediterranean to Turkey and Libya. Egypt’s fava beans were replaced by the more plentiful chickpeas.
Everyone who adopted falafel claimed it as their own.
In 1949 Israel was forced to limit meat and other staples. At the same time many Jewish immigrants arrived from Yemen, Turkey, and North Africa. They brought with them the chickpea version of falafel. It was a perfect meat substitute, providing protein and nutrients in readily available ingredients. Yemenites opened falafel stores around the country. Before long, falafel became an Israeli staple.
According to Israeli singer Nissim Garame:
Every child knows that macaroni is Italian.
The Austrians in Vienna have tasty schnitzel
And the French eat frogs . . .
And we have falafel, falafel, falafel . . .
Today you can hardly find a street or town in Israel that doesn’t offer falafel.
A few years later the Israelis brought falafel to the U.S. It was an instant hit. Now there are falafel drive-throughs, gyro shops, wraps, and falafel appetizers. It’s a favorite for vegetarians, vegans, and people looking for sustainable foods and meat alternatives. Served in a pita bread, with salad, hummus, and tahini (sesame seed paste), falafel can be a complete meal, a street food snack, or an appetizer.
Check out National Falafel Day on June 12. Try falafel balls, burgers, sandwiches, tortillas, even falafel sushi. You can make it at home from frozen falafel or falafel mixes. This humble street food doesn’t disappoint.
Who wins the falafel wars?
They all do.