CAIRO/JERUSALEM – Its origin is the subject of many a debate, but the falafel – a dish made from fava beans or chickpeas – tops the list of the most popular street foods in the Middle East.
No one knows the true birthplace of the falafel, or whether it originated in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine or Egypt.
“The entire region claims this dish. I do not think anyone knows when it first appeared,” said Salima Ikram, an Egyptology professor at the American University in Cairo.
Ikram explained that multiple variations of falafel were consumed in Ancient Egypt, except it was not deep-fried in the same way that falafels are nowadays.
“Fava beans have been around in Egypt but were not very popular until let’s say III and II century BC,” she added.
Some even claim the falafel is an Indian dish, but “who knows which one came first?” Ikram mused.
The only difference, according to Ikram, is that the Egyptians make their falafel with fava beans, while others areas in the region use chickpeas.
“The Egyptian ones of course are made with fava beans and come out as a wonderful green thing, while the Palestinians ones are made with chickpeas.
“But otherwise there is the same idea of garlic and onion and parsley and cumin and coriander and so on.”
A FLAVOR IN EACH PALESTINIAN HOME
Palestinian restaurant Lina in East Jerusalem is one of the most famous in the Old City, where Firas Zahde prepares hundreds of pieces of falafel every morning from 8:30.
Zahde lets the chickpeas soak overnight and in the morning mixes them with garlic, hot pepper, coriander and parsley using a food processor, and adds salt and carbonate afterwards.
He then deep-fries them for five minutes with oil at a temperature above 200 degrees Celsius before handing them to customers in paper bags for breakfast at home.
Zahde told EFE there are many versions and each person cooks it in their own way, according to what he saw in Hebron, Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Some add bread while others use sweet peppers instead of spicy ones.
Zahde believes that the Egyptian falafel is somewhat different because it is made from fava beans, adding this dish is more traditional in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
THE EGYPTIAN TA’AMIYA, FALAFEL’S FIRST COUSIN?
The recipe is slightly different and it is known as Ta’amiya in Cairo, but restaurant owner Mohamed Kamel claims the flat-shaped patties are “Egyptian!”
“The fava beans and Ta’amiya are Egyptian foods. I think other countries have taken it and changed the recipe,” said Kamel, who has been in the business for 60 years.
“For us, it is a very old dish and as you can see in the back and white (classic) movies, they are Egyptian.”
ISRAEL AND THE LEGACY OF THE ARAB JEWS
Israeli restaurant Ben Sira in West Jerusalem is a regular destination for many Israelis who want to eat good falafel.
The 10-year-old restaurant belonging to an Israeli of Moroccan origin offers typical dishes from the owner’s grandparents’ country.
Simja Tochover, Ben Sira’s main chef, said is “typical across the Middle East, where food is mixed.”
THE LEBANESE, POSSIBLY THE MOST FAMOUS
Together with Syria, where the civil war has reduced gastronomic tourism to zero, perhaps Lebanon is the most famous country serving up falafel.
Jad Lufti of Falafel Abu Andre, considered one of the best in the country, said the dish is a key part of Lebanese food culture, besides taboula salad and hummus.
“They make it with either chickpeas or fava beans in Beirut and northern Lebanon, but they mix both in the south,” Lutfi added.
Despite these small differences, the falafel also builds bridges between the divided societies of the country, as Muslims consume it during Ramadan as well as Christians, especially in the days when they cannot eat meat, according to Lutfi.
Lebanese food unites the country’s different cultural, ethnic and religious communities at the table.
“With a full stomach, there is an understanding between civilizations,” concluded Fadia, a culinary expert.