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July 24, 2011

MARCH / JUNE 2011 — I bet you were wondering when I posted about desserts and breakfast from my trip in Israel, and nothing about falafel, but seeing as this is probably the most prevalent snack food in the country, (or region, for that matter,) it was something I knew I wanted to try and make for myself.

Falafel Sandwich from a hole-in-the-wall place in the Jewish Quarter, Old Jerusalem

In Israel, in addition to actual restaurants and hole-in-the-wall establishments, there are many stands just out on the sidewalk, like the hot dog and pretzel stands of Manhattan. There is dispute about who, in the Middle East, makes the best falafel, as well as who invented it. Israel? Maybe. Apparently, it is recommended that one ought to get street food by the Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter in Old Jerusalem–always.
There are even little open shacks on the side of the freeway. My friend Annie took me to this shack on the side of the freeway just outside Haifa. She said it was the best she ever had.

A Falafel is a patty of ground up chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), diced onions, herbs (typically cilantro or parsley), and other spices. It’s then scooped up with an ice cream scooper and then deep-fried. Falafels are typically eaten in a pita as a sandwich, always with pickled vegetables, cucumber, tomato, hummus, tahini (sesame paste), and sometimes with fries, hot sauce, and spicy eggplant, baba ghanoush, etc…
When you get falafel in the United States, it’s really quite hard and crunchy (and dry); it’s dark brown on the outside and lime green on the inside. But as you can see here, my falafel, which I made, does not show that wide spectrum of colors. It’s got good chunks of spiced chickpeas, and evenly cooked. It’s not dry or crumbly, and melts warmly in your mouth a bit, and tastes more hearty, like a real meal, not like how a snack cracker kinda just crumbles and gets swallowed. It’s also not as green, which I think means there wasn’t a lot of herbs in it.

Look Ma, no tzatziki!

So what did you do?
Tackling such a foreign cuisine (and by that I mean I’m not familiar with the ground spices, the techniques–for example, you can kinda BS Italian cuisine with the sauces, herbs, etc…) is always intimidating. I looked up a variety of recipes. Did I need egg as a binding agent? What ground spices? I decided to go with the relative simplicity of this one.

First, we had to drain the chickpeas, which is something I’ve never done before, actually, and though it’s supposed to be much more convenient than soaking up dry chickpeas, which can take more than a day, I had to drain them and blot them thoroughly with paper towels, and even then I don’t think I got them as dry as they should have been.
Then, along with diced onions, chopped cilantro, spices, baking powder (yeah, what?), bread crumbs, and minced garlic, we put it into a food processor. At first we just wanted to mash it all up because we thought the processor might make the batter too thin, but our handheld tools weren’t really cutting it, so we pulsed it just a few times.

Then, since, as you know, I never deep fry, I took a gamble and decided to pan-fry them, and just coated the bottom of a pan with canola oil. I was surprised by how well that worked! As you can see, the middle wasn’t as fried as the outer edges, but who cares? You can even see the green color from the outside, due to all the cilantro we added. (Somehow, the color emerges from the frying, I guess.)

Growing up in a Chinese kitchen with few ground spices, I was really fortunate that I got my friend Shilpa to have me over to make the falafel in her loaded Indian kitchen. She had jars of cumin and coriander seeds, which we actually ground with a mortar and pestle. I can’t imagine what it would have tasted like otherwise. I was really happy with the taste. I think these spices play a huge role in the falafel’s flavor. I might even say that we over-seasoned a little. But that’s okay, because the intense flavor is balanced refreshingly with the whole-wheat naan (I didn’t have pita on me), thick slices of cucumber and tomato, and tzatziki, a Greek condiment of plain yogurt, lemon juice, and cucumber. We sprinkled some dill on top. Great stuff.

Lessons learned?
For the best results, the chickpeas cannot afford to be holding extra water. This makes for a watery batter that makes the falafel less crunchy and more smooth and pasty. Ours tasted great, but the inside was little more like a smooth potato croquette, than a crunchy falafel.

If you want to see a little more about Israel, you can see my travel documentary here.


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