Long before hamburgers, pizza and French fries, there was falafel – a traditional Mediterranean dish that has been enjoyed for centuries. A popular street food in Israel, falafel has also made a name for itself in America. Why? Simply put, it tastes good, and it’s pretty good for you, too – a winning combination. But what’s in falafel?
The name “falafel” can refer to the entire dish, but it more accurately describes the main ingredient – falafel balls.
Originally falafel balls were made out of fava beans, chickpeas or some combination of both. These days, falafel balls are usually made out of chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), but you can still find other variations depending on where you buy your falafel.
The chickpeas are soaked, then ground up, and seasoned with onions, scallions and spices like parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander. Then, the mixture is shaped into balls and deep-fried in a large vat. The oil has to be hot enough so that when you drop the balls in, the outside gets nice and crispy and the inside doesn’t get too oily – a delicate balance that the best falafel makers have achieved.
The falafel balls are often served wrapped in a hollow pita shell and garnished with fixings like tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles and sometimes even French fries. Falafel restaurants offer other garnishes as well, such as eggplant salad, shredded beets or pickled vegetables. The whole sandwich is coated with hummus, drizzled with tahini and, if you’re so inclined, topped with a spicy sauce as well.
Many falafel restaurants also serve a meat counterpart to the falafel known as shawarma, which is usually lamb (but can be chicken or turkey) roasted on a spit and shaved off for sandwiches.
What’s great about falafel is that it’s a meatless option for vegetarians that is chock-full of nutrients like fiber, protein and folate. Chickpeas are also low in sodium and saturated fat. That’s not to say it’s as healthy as a green salad. Some falafel pitas can have as many as 750 calories, 30 grams of fat and a whopping 1500 milligrams of sodium. So it’s important to eat your falafel in moderation – and be aware of what toppings you’re choosing and how they impact your calorie count.
Falafel has always been a mainstay on the menu in the Mediterranean, but it also made its way onto the menu in many other countries’ restaurants as well. In particular, the street vendors in New York City are now known for their take on the dish. One of the most popular Manhattan restaurants to serve falafel is Taim, started by Israeli couple Einat Admony and Stefan Nafziger. They serve three varieties out of their tiny storefront and food truck – green (mixed with parsley, mint and cilantro), red (mixed with red peppers) and harissa (mixed with Tunisian spices).
If you don’t happen to live near a falafel joint, you can definitely try your hand at making some at home. This way, you can have more control of the ingredients and how healthy you make it. (You can even bake the balls in the oven instead of deep-frying them, though they won’t be as crispy.)
This traditional falafel recipe is excerpted from Joan Nathan’s cookbook The Foods of Israel Today. It takes some patience, and quite possibly some trial and error. The falafel balls can fall apart in the oil if it’s not the right temperature or the falafel balls themselves don’t have enough flour in the mixture for binding. But once you get them right, they are worth the wait. As for the type of oil, Alton Brown recommends using peanut oil for frying falafel, but most online recipes leave it up to your individual preference.
For a cool twist on tradition, try this falafel recipe, paired with a cucumber sauce instead of the more traditional tahini. With nearly a thousand positive reviews on Allrecipes.com, it’s pretty much unanimous that this is one worth trying.
- 1 ¼ cup dried chickpeas
- ½ cup chopped onions
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 tbsp parsley or cilantro, chopped
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ tsp chili flakes
- 1 tsp powdered cumin
- ½ tsp powdered coriander
- 1 ½ cup flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tbsp water
- ½ cup sesame seeds
- 3 cups cooking oil
- Soak the chickpeas in plenty of cold water overnight. Check them after several hours to make sure that they remain covered with water as they swell.
- Drain the chickpeas and put them in the food processor. Add the onion, garlic, and herbs. Pulse until you obtain a mass that sticks to itself. Scrape the sides down a few times.
- Add the spices, flour, baking powder and salt. Add 3 tablespoons of the water. Run the food processor again to blend. Add the final tablespoon of water if it seems necessary to hold the mass together.
- Pour the chickpea mass out into a bowl.
- Heat the oil in a heavy pan until it shimmers.
- Wet your hands and form a round ball about the size of a walnut in its shell. Compact it between your palms. Fry this first falafel ball. Taste it and adjust seasoning in the raw mass if needed.
- Roll each ball in sesame seeds. Fry balls in batches but don’t crowd them in the pan. Cook until their outsides are brown and crisp, and the inside is cooked through. The first ball will tell you how long to keep them in the oil, although as you proceed, they will fry more quickly.
- Drain on crumpled paper.
- Pack into pita breads. Top with your favorite vegetables and tahini and serve right away.