The Great Falafel Sandwich
The falafel sandwich is surely the most popular Israeli food.
Every country has its iconic sandwich: peanut butter and jelly in the United States, cucumber sandwiches at English tea parties, French bread and Brie. In Israel, it’s the falafel sandwich in pita.
And, like so many things in the Middle East, it is a hot potato. Israeli and Jordanian diplomats nearly caused a diplomatic crisis in Japan in 2007 when, during a cocktail party, each claimed the falafel sandwich as their country’s national dish Baklava . Lebanon actually once considered suing Israel in trade court for falafel copyright infringement. (I suppose the case was dropped when the International Trade Court realized that next Italy would be suing the USA for pizza infringement, China would go after England for claiming tea as a national beverage and Belgium would be suing France for co-opting what should rightly be Belgian Fries!)
So lets leave politics aside, break bread together in peace and agree that a good falafel is just plain delicious.
In Israel, you’ll find kiosks selling falafel at street corners and it remains the best quick meal-on-the-go you’ll find. Falafel is versatile, too: make them tiny and they become an elegant hors d’oeuvre at a party.
Recipes for homemade falafel vary, depending on which part of the Middle East the cook’s family hails from. The basic ingredients are ground chickpeas, mixed with an egg, chopped parsley, ground cumin and coriander. Some people will add chopped onions; others swear you need a tablespoon of tehina paste (ground sesame seeds). Personally, I don’t think it’s a real falafel without lots of chopped cilantro and red pepper flakes thrown in.
Add some breadcrumbs or, to be more authentic, ground bulghur, and roll the paste into balls. Deep fry the balls until golden. Drain on a paper towel. If you’re health conscious, you can still get a great tasting falafel by baking the balls instead of frying them. Spread the balls on a baking tray, spritz a little olive oil on them and make sure not to over bake.
Does this sound too complicated? Take it easy – grab a box of falafel mix! You’ll find them in the ethnic foods section of most large supermarkets. It’s a great party helper that only takes a few minutes to prepare.
Typical falafel are about an inch across, but you can make them hamburger-sized or as small as an olive.
To make the authentic Israeli falafel sandwich, cut open a pita. Line the pita pockets with tehina or chummus, fill with lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, and place a few falafel balls on top. If you wish, douse with hot sauce.
Other options you’ll see include chopped pickles and fried eggplant. Experiment and be creative.
In a concession to globalization, so many kiosks now add French fries to their falafel sandwich that many young Israelis no longer remember they weren’t part of the original deal. Authentic or not – and as strange as it may sound to stuff fries into a pita – it is surprisingly good.