Few foods can yield the bold flavors and portability of street food by using only cheap, readily-available plant products. Falafel is, perhaps, the best example.
Take a bunch of chickpeas, soak them overnight, and grind them down. Mix everything up with parsley, scallions, and garlic (also finely chopped), then throw some spices in for good measure. Roll this mixture up into a patty or small balls, deep-fry them, and you get falafel. Simple, tasty, and cheap to make — no wonder that falafel is such a popular food item today.
But these savory bites aren’t immune to the pitfalls of fame. Since everybody wants a bite of falafel, many peoples are claiming to be its inventors. And since historically-speaking everyone has been cooking it to suit their own tastes and local agriculture, we’re having a hard time determining where the word and recipe actually comes from.
A crispy, crunchy treat
Falafel is a Middle Eastern dish, perhaps among its most recognizable and widely-known. While the word itself actually denotes the brown, fried patties, food stalls will likely hand you a wrap when you ask for falafel. This is the most common way of serving it: on a bed of salad, vegetables (cooked, pickled, sometimes fresh) with ample helpings of spices, sauce, all wrapped up in a flatbread.
These fried patties are very versatile. They can be served hot or cold, don’t squash in your backpack, won’t spoil for a few days, and can be eaten on the go. They’re pretty tasty by themselves but shine when paired with other flavors. Alternatively, they can inject that flavor to a meal of nutritious but bland items.
Another part of this versatility shines in the cooking department: chickpeas aren’t the only base you can use to make falafel. One of its main selling points is that you can take a cheap and easy-to-grow main ingredient that’s bland by itself (a bean, pea, or some other type of protein-rich plant) and turn it into a portable, flavorful, filling dish. The variety popular in the Western world and much of the Middle East today uses chickpeas, but Egyptian falafel (ta’miyya) is made using only fava beans. In Marsa Matruh, a city in Egypt’s Western Desert, you can even find ta’miyya made from hyacinth beans with some beef in the middle.
Which spices go into the patties is also mostly a product of local taste and available ingredients. Traditionally, cumin and coriander are added to the chickpeas or beans.
Is it nutritious, sustainable and healthy?
Falafel as a dish contains several ingredients which are at least in part the product of where you find yourself, so offering a one-size-fits-all guide of how nutritious it is would be impossible.
But the patties themselves, when made with chickpeas, are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, fibers, and several key nutrients such as calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc. Chickpea falafel is notable for having a high level of soluble fibers which help reduce cholesterol.
As a rule of thumb, falafel patties tend to have roughly similar nutritional content to the (cooked) beans they’re made from. In the case of chickpeas, cooking increases the amount of fiber, the quality of the proteins, and makes most other nutrients more accessible to our bodies. Chickpeas themselves have a very mild taste, so falafel’s strongest flavors come from the onions, spices, and herbs mixed in (so it’s delicious).
However, they do absorb some oil while being deep-fried, which isn’t the healthiest thing; baking the patties after cooking can help draw out some of this fat content.
Falafel typically includes no meat, and is generally completely plant-based — so each falafel you eat has a comparatively small environmental impact. It can contain dairy products in the sauces or dressings added, but these are limited in quantity.
All in all, if you want to help the environment on a full belly, ditching the steak for one or two falafel sandwiches is the way to go.
When did people start eating it — and where?
Easy to make, cheap, portable, filling, and made from two of the oldest crops humanity has domesticated — falafel must’ve made for a very popular food in Antiquity.
But no, not really. Or, at least, not to the best of our knowledge. One of the main criticisms against ancient falafel is that it needs to be deep-fried, which is a very wasteful way of using cooking oil (a very pricy commodity in many areas of the ancient world). While this wouldn’t be out of the reach of kings or pharaohs of old, we didn’t find any paintings of them doing so.
The dish does indeed seem to originate in Egypt, however, or to at least draw from its ta’miyya patties. Another popular theory is that an ancient branch of Christianity which forms the bulk of Egypt’s modern adherents to this faith, the Copts, invented falafel as an alternative to meat during times of fasting. There’s little to back this theory up, however.
Chickpeas were known and grown in Europe by the time of Charlemagne, but we have no mention of falafel or a similar dish here until the late 17 early 18 century (the British occupied Egypt in 1882).
Egypt’s largest port Alexandria is often seen as the birthplace of falafel. This Mediterranean port was the country’s gateway to Europe and harbored the highest local concentration of soldiers and civilians from Europe. Either these soldiers carried news of falafel back home, or they were part of the cultural dialogue that led to its creation.
Today, the debate of who deep-fried the first falafel patty is quite heated in the Middle East. People of all walks of life from all cultural and religious groups in the area enjoy it. But governments in the area want to claim local foods as their own cultural legacy, as a means of legitimizing their political claims.
Whichever way such decisions go, it won’t change the simple simple fact that falafel is cheap, easy to make, and above all — delicious.