Falafel is a Middle Eastern food with a long history in Arab countries, as well as ancient Israel. The word falafel may descend from the Arabic word falāfil, a plural of the word filfil, meaning “pepper.” These fried vegetarian fritters are often served along with hummus and tahini sauce (known as a “falafel plate.”) They’re also great served with toum, a Middle Eastern garlic sauce.
So just what is the history of this tasty little fritter? Legume fritters have existed in the Middle East for thousands of years. According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, “The first known appearance of legume fritters (aka falafel) in the Middle East appears to be in Egypt, where they were made from dried white fava beans (ful nabed) and called tamiya/ta-amia (from the Arabic for ‘nourishment’); these fritters were a light green color inside. Many attribute tamiya to the Copts of Egypt, who practiced one of the earliest forms of Christianity. They believed that the original state of humankind was vegetarian and, therefore, mandated numerous days of eating only vegan food, including tamiya.”
I recently learned that falafel may actually predate the Copts of Egypt, as deep fried lentil fritters known as “ashishim” are mentioned in the Torah, the Song of Songs, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. That’s some pretty ancient falafel!
Traditional falafel is a great vegan source of protein for people who have cut meat out of their diet. It’s relatively low in fat and has no cholesterol if you fry it in a heart-healthy, cholesterol-free oil. And if you top it with veggies in a pita, it becomes a filling and nourishing meal! Sure beats a Big Mac, if you ask me.
In Israel, falafel made with chickpeas is wildly popular. Falafel stands are as numerous and plentiful in Israel as fast food restaurants are here in the U.S. Falafel is also fast and easy, but more nourishing and better for your heart than burgers and fries. The idea of stuffing falafel into pita pockets is actually an invention of Yemenite Jewish immigrants to Israel. The introduction of pita sandwiches made falafel portable, which expanded its popularity and made it into the number one “fast food” in Israel.
On my trip to Israel this past summer, one of the last stops we made was for a falafel pita. I asked our friend Hagai to take us to his favorite falafel joint, Mana Mana, on Yehuda Hamaccabi street in Tel Aviv. At that time it was run by a three-generation family—grandfather, father, and son. The young son ran the cash register with the confidence and authority of a 40 year-old. Apparently the restaurant has changed management since then, so I can’t vouch for the food now, but at the time they made a truly delicious falafel—crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside, with fresh toppings grown on local kibbutzim.
My favorite way to make a falafel pita… start with a layer of hummus deep inside the pocket, then add the falafel, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles. Top with a thin layer of tahini sauce. Okay, I’m making myself hungry! 🙂
Here is my recipe for falafel, along with a few variations you can try. Falafel was originally made with fava beans and continues to be made this way in Egypt and other Arab countries, but Israeli falafel is almost universally made from chickpeas. This is because many Jews have a medical deficiency called G6PD, a hereditary enzymatic deficiency that can be triggered by fava beans. I have included an Egyptian falafel recipe variation at the end of the blog if you would like to try making it that way. It’s greener and spicier than the Classic Falafel.
You will need to soak dried chickpeas overnight for your falafel to turn out right; canned beans are too tender and contain too much moisture to achieve the right consistency. Don’t cook the beans, because this will result in a mushier and denser falafel, which is not the proper texture. I’ve also included instructions for constructing your own falafel pita. As they say in Israel, Bete’avon!
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- 1 lb dry chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) - you must start with dry, do NOT substitute canned, they will not work!
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 small onion, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3-5 cloves garlic (I prefer roasted garlic cloves)
- 1 1/2 tbsp flour or chickpea flour
- 1 3/4 tsp salt
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- Pinch of ground cardamom
- 1 tsp baking powder (optional - makes the falafel more fluffy)
- Vegetable oil for frying - grapeseed, sunflower, avocado, canola, and peanut oils all work well
One day ahead: Pour the chickpeas into a large bowl and cover them by about 3 inches of cold water. Add 1/2 tsp of baking soda to the water and stir; this will help soften the chickpeas. Cover the bowl and let them soak overnight in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator. The chickpeas should soak at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours, until tender (change soaking water for fresh water after 12 hours). They will double in size as they soak – you will have between 4 and 5 cups of beans after soaking.
Drain and rinse the chickpeas well. Pour them into your food processor along with the chopped onion, garlic cloves, parsley, flour or chickpea flour (use chickpea flour to make gluten free), salt, cumin, ground coriander, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cardamom. Note: if you have a smaller food processor, you will want to divide the ingredients in half and process the mixture one batch at a time.
Pulse all ingredients together until a rough, coarse meal forms. Scrape the sides of the processor periodically and push the mixture down the sides. Process until the mixture is somewhere between the texture of couscous and a paste. You want the mixture to hold together, and a more paste-like consistency will help with that... but don't over-process, you don't want it turning into hummus!
Once the mixture reaches the desired consistency, pour it out into a bowl and use a fork to stir; this will make the texture more even throughout. Remove any large chickpea chunks that the processor missed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Fill a skillet with vegetable oil to a depth of 1 ½ inches. I prefer to use cooking oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed. Heat the oil slowly over medium heat. The ideal temperature to fry falafel is between 360 and 375 degrees F; the best way to monitor the temperature is to use a deep fry or candy thermometer. After making these a few times, you will start to get a feel for when the oil temperature is "right." Meanwhile, form falafel mixture into round balls or slider-shaped patties using wet hands or a falafel scoop. I usually use about 2 tbsp of mixture per falafel. You can make them smaller or larger depending on your personal preference. The balls will stick together loosely at first, but will bind nicely once they begin to fry.
If the balls won't hold together, place the mixture back in the processor again and continue processing to make it more paste-like. Keep in mind that the balls will be delicate at first; if you can get them into the hot oil, they will bind together and stick. If they still won't hold together, you can try adding 2-3 tbsp of flour or chickpea flour to the mixture. If they still won't hold, add 1-2 eggs to the mix. This should fix any issues you are having. Before frying my first batch of falafel, I like to fry a test one in the center of the pan. If the oil is at the right temperature, it will take 2-3 minutes per side to brown (5-6 minutes total). If it browns faster than that, your oil is too hot and your falafels will not be fully cooked in the center. Cool the oil down slightly and try again.
When the oil is at the right temperature, fry the falafels in batches of 5-6 at a time until golden brown on both sides.
Once the falafels are fried, remove them from the oil using a slotted spoon.
Let them drain on paper towels. Serve the falafels fresh and hot; they go best with a plate of hummus and topped with creamy tahini sauce. You can also stuff them into a pita.
SESAME FALAFEL VARIATION: After forming the balls or patties, dip them in sesame seeds prior to frying. This will make the falafel coating crunchier and give it a slightly nutty flavor.
HERB FALAFEL VARIATION (GREEN FALAFEL): Add ½ cup additional chopped green parsley, or cilantro, or a mixture of the two prior to blending.
TURMERIC FALAFEL (YELLOW FALAFEL): Add ¾ tsp turmeric to the food processor prior to blending.
HOW TO MAKE A FALAFEL PITA: Making a falafel pita is actually really simple. The two main ingredients are pita bread and falafel. Cut the pita bread in half to form two “pockets.” Each pocket is a serving size. Stuff the pocket with falafel, as well as any add-ons you fancy. Here are some traditional add-ons that can be added to your pita: tahini sauce, shredded lettuce, diced or sliced tomatoes, Israeli salad, onions, dill pickles, hummus, tabouli, french fries
Here are some less traditional add-ons that are also tasty: sprouts, cucumber slices, roasted peppers, roasted eggplant slices, sunflower seeds, feta cheese, yogurt, tzatziki.