Lloyd’s Fascinating History of Falafel is a guest post from a member of our Jewish Food Hero community. Lloyd shares all about the origins of falafel, a hotly contested issue. Let’s learn together about this delicious, internationally popular street food.
A bit about Lloyd Masel
Lloyd Masel lives in Israel with his wife Shush. He made aliyah to Israel with his wife Shush in 1999 to join two of their adult children and their families for their retirement years.
In Australia, he worked for 40 years focused on marketing and advertising for his family retail business. He also was the principal tenor for the West Australia Opera for 7 years. He still loves opera and teaches students opera singing in Israel.
He still loves writing and writes food articles (like this one) and manages a Facebook page called ‘Israel. Where Needs Become Deeds’.
He is 90 years old! Today, he is still doing what he loves – writing. What an inpiration for all of us!
Just who invented the falafel?
There are several contenders, but one thing is for sure: the falafel has been around for centuries. In Israel the falafel is regarded as a national dish, a claim vehemently disputed by the Palestinians. Lebanon went one step further by legally applying for ownership rights.
But despite these claims, it seems the falafel was born and bred in Egypt during the 19th century.
Although disputed, the claim comes as a result of the Colonial expansion of the British Empire. In an attempt to protect financial assets, they invaded Egypt in 1882. British Army Officers had been previously stationed in India. They were accustomed to being handsomely fed with vegetable croquettes. Arriving in Egypt, they demanded something similar and just as tasty made with local ingredients.
As we know, falafel are deep fried patties and balls made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, sometimes a mix of both. Both fibre crops and legumes were available in abundant quantities in Egypt, though oddly enough India produces more chickpeas than any other country in the world.
Nevertheless, the Indian chefs preferred using vegetables to grains for their delicious croquettes.
So, this explanation seems to justify the claim that the falafel had its origins in Egypt, not the Middle East, where the disagreement on ownership and origin remains an ongoing dispute.
What do we know about chickpeas?
Historians have claimed that chickpeas were grown as early as 6970BC in France and 3500BC in Turkey. Evidence has been found in the Middle East to justify this suggestion. The cultivation of these crops in this area may be linked to the Mediterranean diet.
A typical Mediterranean diet is generally regarded as very healthy. It is also clear our ancestors in the region were fully aware of the health benefits of chickpeas. Chickpeas are packed with nutrients, high in dietary fibre, rich in plant protein and very versatile for cooking. In the Middle East as well as India, chickpeas are ground into flour, blitzed for making falafel, and are regularly added whole to salads, soups and stews.
Notes from Germany in 1793 even record ground roasted chickpeas being used as a substitute for coffee in Europe.
The Falafel Takes Off
Despite the popularity of the falafel in Egypt in 1882, it was some time later when they really took off across the Middle East. In 1933, a falafel shop opened in Beirut. The falafel there was served in a pita or wrap, and topped up with as much salad as desired.
Let’s look at why this popular street food really took off.
Among the numerous health benefits of chickpeas and fava beans, falafel balls and patties are low in calories and sugar free. Their appealing taste satisfies vegetarians, vegans and meat-lovers alike.
Health benefits, great taste and affordability were enough merits for the falafel to travel down the coast to Yemen, up to Turkey and across the west to Libya.
And wherever the falafel appeared, each country claimed ownership. People didn’t care where the falafel originated, they just eagerly introduced it to the local cuisine.
The International flavour of food
As we know, when people move from one country to another, they bring their cultural practices with them. Especially when it comes to eating.
Today in restaurants right around the world, Middle Eastern foods often feature in menus. When the falafel grew in popularity as an inexpensive street food, it didn’t take long for the falafel balls and patties to find their way onto dinner tables for meals served with all sorts of salads and vegetables.
For instance, in Israel when the State was created in 1948, the early settlers in the kibbutzim took readily to the falafel. It was cheap, and with the shortage of crops in the newly founded State, it proved an ideal substitute for meat and fish which were in short supply and expensive.
In the 1960s it travelled to America, in particular to New York, where a large Jewish community lived. And to Germany with its large population of Turkish immigrants.
Today, there are falafel stalls and shops throughout the world, from the Middle East, to Europe, Africa, across to the Americas and finally to the Far East and India. Falafel is everywhere.
The humble falafel
Sure, it looks lonely and humble. The falafel doesn’t jump out of the page and shout: eat me! But we shouldn’t be fooled by its simplicity.
Eaten either as a street food, a full meal or as part of a mezze (small dishes) as served in Middle Eastern restaurants, the falafel has been welcomed across the world.
Falafels are best eaten when just cooked, but will still remain tasty after 3 days in the refrigerator. You can also freeze falafels, cooked or uncooked.
But in general, the falafel is very versatile and can readily be served with as many salads or vegetables as you wish. Enjoy a tasty, healthy and satisfying meal.
A world tour of falafels
Lisa Bryan travelled through Egypt, Israel and Jordan sampling falafels wherever she went. In restaurants and on street corners. She tried falafels stuffed into gluten-free pita with salad, also as a meal on a plate with salad and tahini.
After eating her way around Tel Aviv she claimed she had discovered the secret to the best falafel. According to her, it takes generous helping of herbs – more than double the suggested amount – and a small sprinkling of green pepper. “Insanely delicious,” she remarked.
Bake it and make it super delicious
Sandra Valvassori insists few things are better than a fried falafel, still hot, salty and almost-too-greasy. With heaps, really heaps of tahini sauce. Yet, fried food is not ideal. So Sandra adapted the fried version to a baked version. Don’t forget the tahini sauce!
Contacting Lloyd Masel
If you would like to contact Lloyd about his food writing, write to him here
More falafel recipes
If Lloyd’s post has left you keen to get cooking up your own falafels, try out these recipes:
If you want to use falafel mix: here is a mix by manishewitz. It is cetified kosher and sugar free.
If you want to make a recipe from scratch, here is one