"Falafel” (of “felafel") is a popular dish in Israel and in Middle Eastern restaurants and food stands throughout the world. Falafel is also popular in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Mamoun’s Falafel (119 Macdougal Street) serves up an inexpensive product to waiting lines of customers. Chickpea (23 Third Avenue amd 210 East 14th Street) offers a “shawafel”—“shawarma” + “falafel.”
The origins are falafel are not clear; Egypt and Yemen both claim the dish. “Filfil” means pepper, and “flafil” in a “lettuce and pepper salad” is cited from 1911. “Filefel” is cited in detailed articles in Jerusalem’s Palestine Post by 1939. The complete, modern “falafel” consists of fried balls of chickpeas, lettuce and tahini (sauce) served in a pita (bread).
Falafel (Arabic: فلافل falaafil (help·info), Hebrew: פָלָאפֶל; also known in Egypt and Sudan as ta’meya, Arabic طعمية), is a fried ball or patty made from spiced fava beans and/or chickpeas. It is a popular form of fast food in the Middle East, where it is also served as a mezze (snack or tapas).
The word “falafel” is the plural of the Arabic word فلفل (filfil), meaning pepper. Variant spellings in English include felafel and filafil.
Falafel is generally served in pita bread, either inside the pita, which acts as a pocket, or wrapped in a flat pita. In many countries, falafel is a popular street food or fast food. The falafel balls, whole or crushed, may be topped with salads, pickled vegetables and hot sauce, and drizzled with techina (tahini). Falafel balls may also be eaten alone as a snack or served as part of a mezze. During Ramadan, they are sometimes eaten as part of an iftar, the meal which breaks the daily fast after sunset.
Falafel originated in Egypt, where it was first made with fava beans as the base. As the dish migrated northwards to Syria and Palestine, chickpeas were introduced instead. Falafel was consumed by Arabs of all religious denominations, including Jews in Egypt and Syria.
After hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to Israel from Arab countries in the 1950s, falafel became an Israeli emblem. The proliferation of falafel stands, operated in particular by Jews from Yemen, made “it possible to incorporate elements like falafel without referring to them as Palestinian.” A popular Israeli song composed by Dan Almagor in 1958, “And We Have Falafel,” included a line claiming falafel as an exclusive Israeli provenance. By the 1970s, Jewish cookbooks included recipes for falafel that made no mention of its Arab origins, leading many Palestinians and Arabs to resent the cultural appropriation of this iconic food.
Some Israelis and Jews have since recognized the controversy. For example, Ammiel Alcalay, a Jewish professor of Middle Eastern culture, has described the Israeli adoption of falafel as “total appropriation” and Dan Almagor notes that if he were composing his song on falafel today, he would now include a line mentioning the dish’s Arab origins.
Falafel is made from fava beans or chickpeas or a combination of the two. The Egyptian variation uses exclusively fava beans, while other variations may only use chickpeas. Unlike many other bean patties, in falafel the beans are not cooked prior to use. Instead they are soaked, possibly skinned, then ground with the addition of a small quantity of onion, parsley, spices (including cumin), and bicarbonate of soda, and deep fried at a high temperature. Sesame seeds may be added to the balls before they are fried; this is particularly common when falafel is served as a dish on its own rather than as a sandwich filling.
Recent culinary trends have seen the triumph of the chickpea falafel over the fava bean falafel. Chickpea falafels are served across the Middle East, and have been popularized by expatriates of those countries living abroad.
Falafel has been part of the diet of Arabs, as well as Mizrahi Jews for centuries. It is also a staple of the Israeli diet and has become the national dish of Israel.
Falafel is now popular as a street food in countries around the world. Sometimes it is offered as a vegetarian alternative to Döner kebab.
chickpea (New York, NY)
baked patties of ground chickpeas and spices.
succulent, marinated chicken cooked vertically on a rotisserie and sliced into delicate strips.
a zesty hybrid of shawarma and baked falafel.
Main Entry: fa·la·fel
Variant(s): also fe·la·fel \fə-ˈlä-fəl\
Inflected Form(s): plural falafel also felafel
Etymology: Arabic falāfil
: a spicy mixture of ground vegetables (as chick-peas or fava beans) formed into balls or patties and then fried
(Oxford English Dictionary)
[ad. Arab. falfil.]
(See quot. 1951.)
1951 Commentary (N.Y.) XI. 269 Falafel: sharp peppers and fried dried pea balls sandwiched in a flat roll called a pitah. Falafel is a standard meal around some urban and most interurban bus stops, where one spends a good part of one’s life.
1955 P. SMOUHA Middle Eastern Cooking 74 Filafil..Broad beans..garlic..onion..oil… Form mixture..into balls..and fry them.
1962 A. RAMATI Israel Today 299 Falafel, spiced fried balls of chick peas and hot pepper, soaked in a relish and chilisauce. Usually served in bread.
1963 J. COMAY Introd. Israel xiv. 247 Felafel. (Bought off a stand in a street) is made of a highly spiced mixture of deep-fried balls of ground chickpea, small peppers, and pickled cucumbers, served hot between halves of peeta. It can be ordered hot (pepper hot) or mild.
1968 C. RODEN Bk. Middle Eastern Food 38 Falafel..is one of Egypt’s national dishes.
Banquets of the Nationa:
Eighty-Six Dinners Characteristic and Typical Each of Its Own Country
by Robert H. Christie
Edinburgh: J & J Gray & Co.
Pg. 483 “Palestine (Hebrew)”:
SALATA HUS WA FLAFIL (Lettuce and Pepper Salad.)
Incorporate a lettuce torn into small pieces with a couple of thinly sliced chillies or peppers. Make a dressing of oil, vinegar, pepper, and salt.
Palestine Post Online
19 October 1939, Palestine Post, pg. 4:
If you have good teeth and a cast iron constitution, “begel” are not too bad. These are brought to you by a down at the heels looking person. Why the begel vendor is down at the heels I do not exactly know except that it is an old Jewish tradition.
The most popular of all, however, is the Filafel Man. He seems to give you an almost unlimited amount of food for next to nothing. There is first half a pita (Arab loaf), slit open and filled with five filafels, a few fried chips and sometimes even a little salad. The whole is smeared over with Tehina, a local mayonnaise made with sesame oil. Unhappy the person who does not know
the delights of filafel, for into the making of this delicacy go chick pea paste pounded together with coriander, cummin, hot peppers and other oriental spices. They are then fried in little cakes in deep fat.
Most refreshing of all are sabras sold right off the ice.
Palestine Post Online
31 December 1939, Palestine Post, pg. 10:
INTO ITS OWN
By Lilian Cornfeld
UNSEEN revolutions are brewing in the world of food. Filafel, rather messy and dubious looking, has come into its own, claiming its place amongst foods of dietetic value. Formerly restricted to the sea shore and Oriental sections of Tel Aviv, these fried vegetable cakes can now be found in the very heart of the city, proclaiming their odoriferous presence from every street corner.
Teachers and students alike fortify themselves against the trials of the coming hours with this tasty dish. Mothers assure themselves for the small sum of half a piastre of an extra half hour’s sleep, and even babies in arms scarcely able to say “Aba,” clamour loudly for filafel.
How to Make
What is the secret of filafel’s strange success? It is made of chick peas, a pulse of great nutritional value, containing a high percentage of calories, iron and vitamin B. These peas are soaked for the best part of 24 hours, til they swell and become soft. Then they are ground to a fine paste, to which a little flour and water is added, making a batter-like consistency. Then comes the (Col. 2—ed.) seasoning, not at all an easy matter.
Besides the salt and red or green pepper, “Cousbara” is added unsparingly. A touch of garlic, or if you prefer onion, completes your seasoning.
A spoonlike contraption forms the mixture into litle cakes and drops them into boiling fat, to fry till they become a golden brown. However much we may object to frying,—if fry you must, this at least is the proper way of doing it.
How to Serve
Serving a filafel is something of a cermony. They are served with two kinds of sauces, “tehina,” or a vegetable one. The “tehina” is made of ground sesame seeds, which by the way are very wholesome, worked to a mayonnaise with water and then seasoned with lemon juice and chopped parsley. The vegetable sauce is made of ground tomatoes and sharp peppers mixed with water qand very highly spiced. These sauces stand in two jars, cafeteria style, and you may help yourself to whichever you prefer. Half a pittah is split open, five filafels snugly enclosed with a couple of potato chips thrown in for good measure, and as much tehina or vegetable sauce as you wish for. That is a complete meal.
Palestine Post Online
11 October 1940, Palestine Post, “Falafel is Good for You” by Dorothy Kahn, pg. 6:
Falafel (for the benefit of any stray person who has no children in his home) are the small, brown, fried edibles which are hawked on street corners. Five or six are inserted into a split pitta and doused with relish. They have been the subject for songs and quips on the Hebrew stage. Children will pawn their soulds for one. Grownups are violently pro and con. THe “cons” find them disgusting. The “pros” who haven’t the courage to eat them on the street, have them wrapped in paper and guiltily sneak them home. The name is Arabic, meaning pepper.
The latest news from the “falafel front” in Tel Aviv is that a German conceived the idea of making falafel, minus the familiar strong odour. After thorough research, he succeeded. “And how are they?” I asked a falafel “pro”. He answered mournfully. “They’re good food. Only they aren’t falafel.”
The Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project
16 December 1949, The Jewish Criterion, “A Guide for Tourists,” pg. 30, col. 2:
The mysteries of Arab cuisine beckon the visitor in Jaffa, Nazarethand Tiberias—“falafel,” most nearly described as an “everything but the kitchen sink plus red pepper” sandwich; the bland succulence of “tehina” and “chumus,” eaten with hunks of the platter-shaped bread, “peeta”; the juicy kebab and shashlik.
by Bernard M. Bloomfield
New York, NY: Crown Publishers
Pg. 58 (April 8th, 1949):
I must make some notations on the falafel which, to Israel, is what the hot dog is to us. This creation is really something. We first discovered falafel while waiting for a bus outside a little street
kiosk on a corner in Haifa. An eager customer approached and stolidly intoned a single word, “falafel.” Immediately the proprietor went to work before our startled eyes. He first took a round, flat petah bread, about six inches in diameter. This he deftly cut across in half. Then taking one of the halves he made a pocket by opening the sides. Into this he inserted, with a pair of tongs, several golden brown balls about the size of walnuts, which had been fried in oil. The balls were made of chopped vegetables, meal, and garlic. Over these he put chopped lettuce or cabbage and over this
a liquid sauce, something like mayonnaise in color. We noticed at this point that the customer, who was taking in each detail of preparation with a practiced eye, nodded his head in approval at the liberality of the amount of sauce. Then, reaching under the counter, the boss took out a little bottle of oil, or dripping of some sort, and added a few drops on the finished article, with the deftness and aplomb of a Swiss chef placing a cherry on the top of a cream pie. A paper napkin was placed under the falafel and handed over to the customer, whose salivary glands by this time were working
furiously. In payment, 50 mills (15 cents) were handed over.
I asked the boss what it was he had just made and he told me it was a falafel.
“But what is falafel?” I asked.
He smiled. “Here, taste this.” He gave me one of the little fried balls which he took up with his tongs. I tasted it. It was spicy and not unpleasant but left me more or less gastronomically unmoved.
“Do you sell a lot of falafels?” I asked.
“Oh sure. All day long.”
At this point, another stolid intonation was heard behind us. “Falafel.”
The boss immediately went into his routine. He had just gotten to the point where the drops of oil were to be applied, when our bus arrived and we dashed off.
Louis and I drove along speculating on the falafel and its origin, having nothing more pressing to occupy our minds.
“How did it originate?” we wondered. “How did they come by the particular combination of putting little fried balls in a half bun? What brain conceived such a dish?” And then, once having become aware of the falafel’s existence, we noticed how, on all sides and at all times of the day, they were being consumed by all sections of the population. It appears that the great “secret” lies in the preparation of the little balls and each dispenser of falafels keeps his formula a dark secret, passing it on to a trustworthy son, prior to his last gasp on earth.
One becomes aware of falafels, if there is one within a radius of fifty feet, by its characteristic aroma. They’re like olives. You have to cultivate a taste for them and having once done so, you are an addict. Savory falafel! If only some enterprising outfit would really take it up, standardize and glofiy it like the hot dog! We visualized factories springing up and dotting the land, all busy producing falafel balls and falafel juice. Just think, they could can and bottle them, pack them in export cases and ship them all over the world!
As our bus rolled along, our imaginations soared to even greater heights, and the following ideas developed:
(1) That the Government create a Ministry of Falafelach.
(2) That a chair be endowed at the Hebrew University on Falafelology.
(3) That a company be incorporated under Israeli laws called “National Falafel Corporation Ltd.” for manufacture, idestribution, and promotion of the falafel.
(4) That the Weizmann Institute at Rehovoth immediately turn its best brains loose on the problem of synthesizing the falafel.
(5) That a National Falafel Day be proclaimed in Israel, as a legal holiday, culminating in the election of “Miss Falafel.”
Israel Without Tears
by Ruth Gruber
New York, NY: A. A. Wyn
Felafel is an Arab kind of tortilla, a flat Arab roll filled with a small fried ball of chopped vegetables and herbs, garlic, pepper, with diced…
The Israel substitute for hamburger fans is felafel, an Arab-inspired delicacy of vegetable paste fried in fat and served on pitta.
January 1953, Jewish Spectator, vol. 18, pg. 17, col. 2:
And there are the boot blacks with their long boxes, and the “falafel” stands. That you learn is a special Israeli spicy, fried concoction which is eaten together with pickle and a brown roll. If you pass that up you may treat yourself to a hot corn served on a corn husk--without butter, of course. There is “tzena” (austerity) in Israel and no butter is served with anything.
by Lilian Cornfeld
Westport, CT: Avi Pub. Co.
Falafel. This dish is of Middle Eastern and Yemenite origin. Egyptians make it with dried phul (dried broad beans). Syrians and Israelis make it with hamtza or chick-peas. During the war, when the latter were scarce and expensive, falafel was made of dried white beans but this is not considered good.
(Photo of a product called “FALLAFEL” is on the page—ed.)
January 1966, Gourmet, pg. 61, col. 3:
Q: Would you possibly have a recipe for filahfel, the Israeli and Egyptian chich-pea mixture?
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
A: Filahfel becomes falafel, but we trust that the dish remains the same.
(Recipe for “Falafel (Chick-Pea Croquettes)” follows—ed.)
March 1966, Gourmet, pg. 5, col. 1:
“Hot Dog” from Israel
SIRS: Having enjoyed your delightful magazine for several years and having always marveled at the authenticity of your recipes, I couldn’t let you think that your recipe for falafel (January, 1966) is really doing this succulent dish justice! Since my husband is an Israeli sabra and has made this dish (known in Israel as the “Israeli hot dog,” though it is definitely of Arabic origin) many, many times, I would like to share our complete recipe with you.
Falafel is sold in the sidewalk cafes and on street corners in Israel. It is served in the following fashion: A pita is cut in half into a semicircle and a pocket is made in the bread. A heaping tablespoon of salad is put into it, covered with one or two teaspoons of tahini. On top of the salad are placed four or five falafel, depending on the size of the pita. This is topped with more salad and liberal spoonfuls of tahini. Happy munching!
(Recipe for Falafel Rand (Chick-Pea Croquettes Rand) follows—ed.)
June 1968, Gourmet, “Israel: A Land in Bloom,” pg. 10, col. 2:
We loved the national sidewalk dish, falafel, which means to an Israeli what a hot dog does to us. It is a croquette of mashed chick-peas and cracked wheat, highly spiced with coriander, chili pepper and pounded garlic, and deep-fried in oil until brown. The little balls are served smoking hot in the slit of a warm pita (the flat bread of the Middle East) with a bit of Oriental salad and a slather of hommos and tahineh. (More about them later.)
The Israelis, who are very casual about army rank, refer to the field-grade insignia as falafel, the cheapest food around. Three falafel make a colonel.
The New Yorker
New Kid on the Block Dept.
Name This Joint
by Dana Go
February 16, 2004
Not long ago, Erez Itzhaki, a thirty-four-year-old Israeli real-estate broker and developer, and his business partner, Eric Salomon, decided to sponsor a contest to name their latest venture, a shawarma-and-falafel restaurant on Third Avenue at St. Mark’s Place. Wanting to involve their new community—they have worked mostly in SoHo—they posted a bright-yellow advertisement for the contest over their boarded-up storefront (http://www.name-our-restaurant.com) and offered twenty-five hundred dollars to the winner. So far, seven thousand people have sent in roughly thirteen thousand entries.
Itzhaki, whose previous entrepreneurial activities have not offered him much occasion for invention (he has arranged retail leases for Starbucks and Zales), didn’t come up with anything good on his own. “First, we thought Shawafel”—shawarma and falafel—“then, no, we can’t pronounce it,” he said the other day, in his lower-Broadway offices.