If you haven't had privilege of eating them, falafels are a fried ball or patty of spiced chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) combined with spices and possibly some form of wheat. In some areas, some or all of the chickpeas are replaced with fava beans. Lebanese falafel often uses a combination of fava beans and chickpeas, while in Egypt, it is traditional to use just fava beans. Shape also varies by region. Falafel is commonly served in pocket or roll of flat bread with some sort of fresh vegetable or salad and a yogurt, tahini (sesame seed), or hot sauce. In Israel, they often include french fries in the sandwich as well. They can also be served plain with some combination of sauces, hummus or babaghanoush for dipping, either as a snack or as part of a meza plate. Occasionally falafel are served with tomato sauce, much like meatballs.
People have been growing chickpeas for over 20,000 years, making them one of the early stables of the human diet and first agricultural plants. While the history of falafel is probably not that ancient, it has been around long enough that its origin is shrouded in history – and somewhat controversial! Israel claims falafel as its national food, and in fact, falafel was one of the words we learned in the first week of my beginning Hebrew class. Palestinians complain that falafel was stolen from them, while Israelis point out that the ingredients, if not the recipe, are documented in the bible as foods of the Hebrews. Additionally, they point to the fact that falafel quality and popularity in Israel improved with the influx of Arab Jews from throughout the middle east. What is clear is that falafel is a food that uses foods common in the middle east and is popular throughout the region.
Traditional falafel is made with ground dried soaked chickpeas. Dried legumes, like chickpeas, store and travel very well; particularly in dry climates. Since the chickpeas are not precooked, falafel can be made with as little as 5 minutes of actual cooking (frying) time, in comparison, most other legume dishes require over an hour of actual cooking. This makes falafel probably the fastest cooking legume dish. Easy storage and low fuel requirements makes falafel an ideal protein source when time or resources are limited – such as when traveling.
Falafel is sometimes called the "Hot Dog of the Middle East", but the comparison has more to do with their shared roll as ubiquitous street food than taste or quality. Unlike hot dogs, falafel are very nutritious and include both high-quality protein and vegetables. If you want to get a taste of life in a falafel stand, check out the fun Falafel King game below. Be careful, like falafel, it can be addictive!
The Pea & Lentil Cookbook. (Moscow, ID: USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, 2000.)
"falafel (thing)." Everything 2. 21 February 2003. Everything2.com. 23 September 2006 <http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1432738>.
Just for fun:
Falafel King game - try your hand at running a falafel stand.