(By the way, we pronounce this word with a short second "a," as in apple, alligator, and maybe a better phonetic spelling would be falaafil, with the emphasis on the second syllable.)
There is something genius about these little fritters, for they are tasty, cheap and vegetarian, full of protein and nutrients. They are satisfying and filling, like meatballs, but made from legumes and vegetables, which is useful in a place where meat is an expensive luxury. In some parts of the Middle East, falafels are made with fava beans, or a combination of fava and chickpeas, but in Palestine, falafels are made exclusively with chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans.
Falafels are the quintessential street food, served in stands and shops throughout the Middle East. Some people make these at home, but everyone has a favorite falafel stand, where you can pick up a sandwich or a tray of falafels for a few shekels. Falafel sandwiches bring me right back to my high school days, when I would run down town with my friends to buy fresh falafel sandwiches from a stand on King David Street. There was a dizzying array of toppings and sauces for me to choose from--all sorts of brightly colored pickled vegetables and salads to stuff into my soft pita sandwich, all topped with a tahini-lemon sauce and then stuffed with a handful of French fries. It's the kind of sandwich that stays with you- the vinegary pickles, the creamy, garlicky tahini sauce, and the crunch of a fresh falafel, cradled in soft bread.
More than just a sandwich star, falafels show up cheerfully at the table at any time of the day in an Arab home. In fact, breakfast and supper spreads are very similar, with plates of hummus, labaneh and other dips, along with bread and vegetables or salads, and frequently, a plate of fresh falafel. If you are a guest in the West Bank, or staying in a hostel where the owner serves up breakfast every morning, be prepared for hot plates of falafel to be served along with your morning tea and boiled eggs.
The Makings of a Falafel
If you hunt around the internet, you will find all sorts of methods of making falafels, some with cooked chickpeas (don't try this) and many with other binding ingredients (flour, egg). This is a more traditional preparation. As long as you soak your chickpeas thoroughly, they will be softened enough to form a sticky paste which will hold together during frying. I recommend a long soak, 24 hours or even longer, to break down the antinutrients in the chickpeas, since they will only be fried briefly (read more about the benefits of soaking legumes, grains and nuts here). A longer soak will also ensure more tender chickpeas that can be ground into a finer paste, so that your falafels with have a smooth texture, and hold together in the pot. With this method, you won't need to add any other binders, except for a little baking soda at the end.
Like hamburgers, you can season them more or less aggressively, according to your taste, or omit or add to the ingredients. My mother, for example, prefers to leave out the garlic and coriander, and others add hot jalapeño peppers to spice up their fritters. Taste the batter before frying and then also bite into your first hot falafal, so that you can seasonings before continuing with the batch.
These falafel are really best served immediately after frying, while the crust is still crunchy and hard, and the inside is creamy and soft. I don't think that they reheat particularly well. Prepared dough can be stored in the refrigerator for several days, and then fried up whenever desired.
Yield: 30-40 falafels
1 lb. chickpeas
1/4 large onion
1/2 green bell pepper
1 1/2 cups flat leaf parsley
2-3 cloves garlic
1 small jalapeño pepper (optional)
4 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. baking soda, added just before frying
Oil, for frying, about 3-4 cups.
1. In a large bowl, cover the chickpeas with cool water and let soak 12-24 hours. Chickpeas will expand while soaking, so be sure that the bowl is large enough and that there is enough water to accommodate expansion. When ready to make your falafel mixture, drain chickpeas.
2. In a food processor, combine green pepper, onion, parsley, garlic, and jalapeño pepper, if using. Process until a paste, and then remove to a bowl.
3. Working in batches, process your chickpeas until completely smooth and pasted, between 3-4 minutes per batch. You want the texture to be very smooth, like a thick paste. Transfer each batch to your bowl and work through all of your chickpeas.
4. Add salt, cumin and coriander to the falafel mixtures. Stir until thoroughly combined. You may either refrigerate your mixture at this point (when frying later, stir in the baking soda), or you may add baking soda and prepare to fry your falafels immediately.
5. Heat up the oil in a 2 quart pot until quite hot. You can test by dropping in a tiny bit of your falafel mixture - if hot enough, it will bubble dramatically and float to the top. When the oil is hot enough, form small rounded patties, akin to a baby hamburger, and slide them carefully into your pot with a stainless steel slotted spoon. I like to keep my falafels on the small side, about an inch and a half in diameter, and a quarter inch thick, so that they cook evenly and thoroughly. If you have a small ice cream or cookie scoop, you can use that, or if you happen to have a falafel scoop, you can use that. Take care not to over crowd your pot, and fry about 4-5 at a time. Flip when they are golden brown on one side, and then remove when browned all over, placing the fritters on a paper towel to drain. Sprinkle with a little more sea salt before serving.
TIP: If your falafel crumbles when frying, add a little more baking soda to your mixture and then try again.
6. Fresh is best, so serve hot falafel immediately.