I had a falafel recently in Newcastle which was less than incredible. The falafel was only discernible from the bread by a shift in colour, in fact, it was actually drier than the thick, stale bread. Both were only slightly more appetising than the rough paper they were wrapped in. It had no sauce whatsoever. Bit of iceberg lettuce. ‘What’s going on!!’
A Turkish man made it for me, which made it even more hard to deal with. But then the dawning came, there are no falafels in Turkey. Why should he have known his way around this potential exquisite combination of simple deliciousness. (I might add, this place does the best veg kofta and mezze’s in the North East.) It’s like asking a Geordie to make the perfect momo……. Sometimes, to truly understand something, we’ve got to go back to the source(ish).
Having not long returned from Lebanon, this entire experience was a taste bud trauma. I decided to go home and look at my travel pictures, remind myself about the real deal, sate my hunger by the sheer tastiness of my memories of wandering around Lebanon, from falafel shop to falafel kiosk. I got so excited, and into it, I wrote this.
I had just over a week in Lebanon, it’s not a massive country, but it is well stuffed with chickpeas. People love them, as do I. Hummus, Mshbaha (creamy – recipe here), Fattet (stew) or even just a straight up bowl of warm chickpeas in their broth with a pile of flatbread and liberal sprinklings of intense cumin.
What I saw from my little Lebanese window was that no country worships the chickpea like Lebanon. So mashing it up and deep frying it sounded like a great idea I’m sure. I stand close to my assertion that anything deep fried, crispy and light, will taste great. There is something primal when we bite into it and get the CRUNCH. Even though, most of us now feel it naughty to munch on these deep fried globes of happiness, we still get a kick out of them. You can bake them for slightly healthier results, but when in Beirut…..
Falafels, bar the frying bit, are actually highly nutritious. Packed with fibre, complex carbs and protein, they even have loads of minerals, high in iron for example and don’t get me started on the manganese content. Through the roof!! When you lather them in tahini, veggies, fresh herbs and a wholesome wrap, we doing alright there. In so many ways.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF FALAFEL
Are you new to falafels? Have you been living in very big, deep, dark cave? If so, welcome. They’re deep fried dough balls really. Less exotic and sounding less appetising, but essentially, honest. It is normally made with chickpea or fava bean (see my recipe for Egyptian falafels here) or sometimes both. Add to that some herbs and spices and a normally healthy fistful of breadcrumbs and we’re getting there. The best dishes, the ones we eat and enjoy most often, are always simple. No falafel is an island, it needs it’s gang of accompaniments to shine (see below for the perfect crew).
Strangely, falafel actually means ‘pepper’ (plural of) which somehow means ‘little balls’. In Egyptian Arabic it means, ‘a little bit of food’. It is popular across the Middle East, and now the world. Originally (possibly) it was the Coptic Christians in Egypt who came up with falafels to keep them sated during Lent. But this is a highly charged and sometimes political debate. I’d just like to say that I live in Wales, halfway up a mountain and feel ill-equipped to deal with a full-on falafel debate. I just know that they’re not from Wales.
It has been said that the Pharoahs enjoyed nibbling falafels, but this is hard to prove, but nice to imagine. Pyramids, falafel wrap stands…… In fact, you’ll find McFalafels in McDonalds all over Egypt. Make of that what you will.
Some of the guys working in the falafel wrap joints are like an F1 pit crew. Your falafel is ordered, with special requirements taken note of (almost everyone has their own little wrap quirk) and wrapped in such a rush of energy and precision, sprinkle and roll. It’s exhilarating. These folk know their moves! It goes; whack, whack, sprinkle, scatter, squirt, another scatter, roll, wrap, wrap, twist, launch at customer. A fine art I’d say. Not just the flavour going on here, its the buzz of watching a master at work.
FALAFEL GEEK CORNER
The current world record falafel wrap was 74.75 kgs, made in Amman, Jordan. How they fried it, is interesting to think about. When I checked out ‘world largest falafel ball’, here is what I got (350 lites of vegetable oil and fed 600 people!!):
You can eat falafels for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I’m not recommending it as a balanced diet, but if you’re in Beirut, it seems like a great idea. As we can see, not all falafels are created equal, there are a few rules that I gleaned from friendly Lebanese cooks and falafel aficionados, here are their teachings,
THE DREAM FALAFEL WRAP (LEBANESE EDITION)
Is light on bread, a pitta cut in half thickness wise. Some pickles (pink turnip is nice), some tarator (basic tahini sauce), a few squashed falafels, tomato and lettuce, fresh mint, sometimes parsley, served with some long green pickled chillies. That’s basically it! Simple as and normally quite small. Generally costing around £1.
One of my favourite falafel was eaten beside Baalbek (see this ‘I Ate Lebanon’ post) and served by Ali, the ‘King of Falafels’. A well named man. He was a super star. Baalbek is close to the border with Syria and my journey took a few minibuses, the last one filled with Lebanese army, to get there. Zero tourists, I had the place to myself, the carvings of Cleopatra and the well preserved temple to Dionysus were real treats. After walking around in the baking sun, this falafel was well needed.
So a recap, in Lebanon, this is the low down on the perfect falafel wrap:
- Thin flat bread, most are cut in half.
- Not massive, 3-4 falafels, 12 inches long. A snack.
- Light and crisp falafels
- Pickles. Check out those intense pink turnip pickles!!
- A little tomato and lettuce.
- A good spoonful of creamy tahini sauce
- Mint leaves, always fresh mint leaves.
- Served with pickled green chillies (just a little spicy)
That’s it! Simply amazing!!
BEST FALAFEL WRAP IN LEBANON….
Ali was pipped by, I’m not sure I should even mention this out loud. Can you keep a secret? (Whisper)…..There is a place, just up the road from Falafel Sayhoun, near the souks of Beirut……sorry…I’ve said enough. Friends in Beirut would never forgive me, if you’re planning a visit, get in touch and I’ll give you the directions. There is no sign or door, it’s that good! (Whisper over).
There is something perfectly balanced about it, a falafel wrap or mezze plate gives a sweep of nutritional boosts and most of all, it’s delicious and ticks all the boxes in and around our palate.
Some things will never get old and maybe just keep getting better! As the world seems to get increasingly complex, simple pleasures are all the more important. I felt so lucky to be able to enjoy one of my favourite street feasts with some awesome people in a country that is head over heels for food.
Falafel lovers footnote:
Of course, Lebanon is not the only country where you can feast of falalels! What’s your favourite place for falafels?……