Ahhh, falafel. Oh yes, those smallish, round, brown, slightly crunchy oily things, with the green, speckly insides, tucked into a pita bread with some tehina sauce and even some of that hummus stuff, plus a little salad and chips. Yes indeed, falafel. Doesn’t sound or even look like much, but if Israel has adopted a national food, this is it, the mighty falafel. The fish and chips of the Mediterranean, the tapas of the Middle East.
Oh crikey, after that little introduction I’m hungry. But sorry, this article is not going to recommend the best falafel places to eat, that’s for a future post. We will, however, give you one tip you should take with you when scouting for a good falafel joint: follow the lunchtime crowds and if the place is also clean, you’ve probably uncovered a winner.
So, what is falafel?
Falafel is basically a fried ball of seasoned chickpeas (the seasoning will vary according to the falafel vendor’s probably extremely top secret recipe). As you can see from the falafel recipe below, there’s also a bit of garlic, onion, parsley and coriander usually thrown in to the mix.
Falafel is not only hugely popular in Israel; throughout the Middle East it’s a common form of quick and cheap street food and is often served as a mezze (appetizer).
When buying your falafel portion from a street vendor, it will usually be served in a pita, which holds the falafel balls and as much salad as you can squeeze in. It’s actually quite an art, trying to stuff in as much as you can without the pita breaking! The falafel balls are typically drizzled with tehina sauce and slotted in alongside a variety of salads and pickles from which you will be prompted to choose.
Don’t forget the unwritten rule: in most falafel stands you are free to top up on salads as long as you have remnants of a pita in your possession. If you’re after some more falafel balls, you’ll have to pay for another portion.
The history of falafel
Falafel, despite its strong connection with Israel, actually originates from Egypt, and was originally made from faba beans. Its roots can be traced right back to the Christian Copts of Egypt who were forbidden from eating meat during certain holidays and came up with a falafel-like alternative.
As the popular snack spread throughout the region, the early Jewish pioneers took on the local Arab version made with chickpeas; as time passed the falafel slowly integrated itself as a mainstay of the Jewish-Israeli diet, even if only as “street food”, until it reached its national icon status of recent times.
Falafel – the myth
Contrary to popular opinion, eating falafel won’t make you the most desirable human being that ever walked down Ben Yehuda street. Especially if you forget to wipe your chin after a messy tehina-induced encounter. And ladies, no, falafel won’t make your bum look smaller in those tight shorts.
Where can I find falafel?
Falafel can be found almost everywhere (see our map below for a great quick-glance at some of the premier falafel spots in Israel). The sheer number of falafel joints in the country mean that the falafel is surely Israel’s national food by default. There really is no escaping it; from the moment you hit the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa or even Eilat, you’ll be able to spot the falafel stand.
Look out for the big giveaway – the big glass counter often facing the street which reveals any number of salads (made super accessible to customers) and pickles plus a hot tray for those freshly cooked falafel balls. The quality and variety – and often spiciness – of the salads is purely down to the passion and devotion of the falafel stand owner. Also watch out for the squeezy bottles of tehina, an absolute must in any falafel snack. An even bigger giveaway to spotting the local falafel stand is the line of people at lunchtime and early evening time.
Note that you can also grab falafel at many established restaurants and hotel buffets, though perhaps with a slightly cleaner squeezy bottle of tehina.
Er, how do I eat falafel?
It’s a hands only job is falafel eating. Put that knife and fork away right now! Just make sure you have plenty of napkins nearby to wipe away the sauces and salad juices that will be dripping down your chin, especially if this is your first encounter with a falafel.
Can I make falafel at home?
Thanks to the simple ingredients involved, it’s relatively easy to make your own falafel. Here’s a great looking falafel recipe, try it out.
Check out some other great falafel clips here.
I’m hooked, I want my own falafel stand
OK, this might be a little tricky, especially if you’re not too keen on slicing salads all day and spooning falafel balls into boiling oil. What we’d suggest instead is perhaps going virtual: if you think you can bung those falafel balls into the pita while swatting the flies away like a real falafel stand vendor, here’s your chance to see if you’ve got what it takes via the Falafel King game, an oldie but a goodie.
Bon appetit! Or as they say in Israel, bih-teeya-von!