Falafel — those crispy, filling fried balls of mashed beans, herbs and spices — is found in cafes and homes all over the Middle East and parts of Africa. It's like a common language shared among sometimes fractious nations.
But until recently, I always thought falafel was made one way — garbanzo beans, onion, garlic, parsley, cilantro and cumin. (That's how my Sudanese mother taught me.) But it turns out there are many recipes out there, each with a flavor distinct to its region.
So I set out to investigate in my backyard — the Bay area, in California. At my first stop, in Fremont, I met falafel-maker Ramzi Totari, who came to the U.S. from Israel to go to college.
"The falafel is part of the tradition in every one of the Middle East countries," says Totari, who owns Falafel, etc. "Every street corner has a falafel stand on it. We don't have hamburger stands, we have falafel stands."
Totari was born in Nazareth, Israel, where his father owned a falafel shop. He's Israeli-Palestinian, and where he comes from, Palestinians and Jews make falafel pretty much the same way.
First off, the oil has to be hot so the falafel balls dive like swimmers to the bottom and rise back up again. The idea is to get the falafel balls crunchy on the outside, but not oily on the inside.
Despite being proud of his falafel chops, Totari admits the dish most likely originated in Egypt.
That led me to Pharaoh's Mediterranean Sandwich Shop, an Egyptian-style restaurant that recently opened in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, falafel, or taameya, as most Egyptians call it, is one of their best sellers.
In the back kitchen of the restaurant, Yasmin Elmorsy explains that the Egyptian style of falafel is made with fava beans, not garbanzo beans.
"We are Egyptians eating fava beans from so long ago," she says, "so surely the pharaohs are the first to make the falafel!"
Middle Eastern cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden says traces of fava beans have been found in tombs of the pharaohs, and some believe paintings inside the tombs show cooks making falafel. But Roden says no one can be sure.
Another theory posits the dish originated with Egypt's Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent.
Now, thousands of years later in San Francisco, Elmorsy, her father and four brothers are running a restaurant that offers falafel made the same way.
She mixes the fava beans with cilantro, parsley and onion until it's as smooth as possible. Then she adds spices: salt and pepper, sesame, and most importantly, coriander. After a few minutes of frying, the falafel look more like small hamburgers than balls.
Why Egyptians use fava beans and others garbanzo may have more to do with available food crops than taste. But I also learned that there is a third way — a hybrid.
"Fava beans and garbanzo beans. It's my Lebanese way!" laughs Leila Sfeir. She moved here from Lebanon with her family more than 30 years ago and runs a small catering business in Fremont.
Sfeir 's mixture — chock full of parsley and cilantro, looks more vegetable-y than bean-y. Her falafel balls, a bright green hue, get deep fried in a wok on the stove before being wrapped in pita bread with lettuce and tomatoes.
And? "Tahini sauce," she says. "Soak it good."
So maybe it's not really who makes the best falafel, but, as Roden says, "It's the way you were brought up eating it that means everything to you."
by Hana Baba's mother, Nawal Elbager, of Sudan
(makes about 20 servings)
3 cups dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Half a yellow onion, chopped
1 tablespoon baking soda
Oil for frying
(1 teaspoon salt/1 teaspoon ground cumin for final sprinkling of finished falafel)
Mix all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. This is the falafel mix.
Prepare frying pan with plenty of oil for deep frying.
Scoop up a portion of the falafel mix, roll it in your palm into a ball, then flatten slightly by patting the top. Drop it carefully into the oil once the oil is hot.
The falafel is ready when the color turns light brown. Drain on paper towels.
Prepare a mixture of 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground cumin and sprinkle it on top of the falafel and enjoy!
PALESTINIAN/ISRAELI VERSION: Follow the above recipe, but add 1/2 tablespoon cumin, 1/2 tablespoon hot sauce and 1/2 cup water after mixing beans, cilantro, parsley, onion and garlic. Use a meat grinder, not a food processor, to keep ingredients from getting too mashed, says Ramzi Tori.
EGYPTIAN VERSION: Follow the above recipe, but substitute split fava beans for garbanzos, swap garlic for 1 tablespoon sesame paste (tahini), swap 3 tablespoons parsley for 1 cup of parsley and cilantro mixed, decorate finished falafel with sesame seeds and ground coriander seeds, says Yasmin Elmorsy.
LEBANESE VERSION: Use 2 cups of favas and 2 cups of garbanzo beans, soaked overnight for this hybrid falafel. The next day, prepare the mix, combining the beans, 2 bunches of parsley, 2 bunches of cilantro, 4 garlic cloves and 1 bunch of green onions in a food processor. Then mix in 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon cumin. Add 1/2 tablespoon baking soda and 2 tablespoons water to the mix just before frying, says Leila Sfeir.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Middle Easterners - for that matter, a lot of American Middle Westerners - can get pretty passionate about falafel. Those crispy fried balls of mashed up beans, herbs and spices have been called a national dish of both Israel and Egypt. Until recently, Hana Baba of member station KALW in San Francisco, thought falafel was only made the way her mother makes it. Her family is from Egypt's neighbor, Sudan. Wanting to find out more, Hana went falafel shop hopping around San Francisco and sent us this report.
HANA BABA, BYLINE: First, I went to what I know best - a place that makes falafel the way my mother taught me - with garbanzo beans, otherwise known as chick peas.
RAMZI TOTARI: And we add onions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, cumin.
BABA: Ramzi Totari is the owner of Falafel Etc. in Fremont, California. He was born in Nazareth, Israel, where his father owned a falafel shop. Totari came to the U.S. to go college - worked in the high tech industry for many years - but falafel was in his blood.
TOTARI: In every one of the Middle Eastern countries, every street corner has a falafel stand on it. They don't have hamburger stands, they have falafel stands.
BABA: Totari is Israeli Palestinian, and where he comes from Palestinians and Jews make falafel pretty much the same way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
BABA: And as my mother always told me, the oil must be hot, just like Chef Ramzi's, so the falafel balls dive like swimmers to the bottom and rise back up again.
TOTARI: If you cook it just right, as soon as you put it in the oil, the outside shell seals, and so it doesn't allow oil to get into it.
BABA: He's right. Crunchy on the outside, not oily on the inside. Is his way the best? Of course, he says. But despite being proud of his Palestinian-style falafel , Ramzi Totari admits the falafel most likely originated in Egypt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BABA: Pharaoh's Mediterranean Sandwich Shop recently opened in San Francisco, and not surprisingly, falafel, or taameya, as most Egyptians call it, is one of their best sellers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can I have an extra order of falafel?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, sure.
BABA: And in the back kitchen of the restaurant, Yasmin Elmorsy is getting ready to make a fresh batch.
YASMIN ELMORSY: This is the fava beans that were soaked yesterday.
BABA: That's right. Fava beans, not garbanzo. This is the Egyptian way.
ELMORSY: And we are, Egyptians are eating fava beans from so long ago, so surely there are the Pharaohs who were the first to make the falafel.
BABA: Traces of fava beans have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. And it's possible falafel has roots in ancient Egypt. Another theory is that the dish originated with Egypt's Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent. And now, thousands of years later in San Francisco, Yasmin, her father and four brothers are running a restaurant that offers falafel the same way.
ELMORSY: So, it's a family restaurant and with my mother's recipes - she passed away. So, she teach me and I taught my father and my brothers how to do the recipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER RUNNING)
BABA: Yasmin mixes the fava beans, with cilantro, parsley and onion until it's smooth as possible. Then she adds spices: salt and pepper, sesame, and most important - ground coriander.
ELMORSY: So, be generous with the coriander. It makes the taste of the falafel.
BABA: Yasmin shapes her falafels into what look like small burgers. And after a few minutes of frying, I get to try my first ever fava bean falafel. Mmm, coriander. Maybe one difference is that this is heavy. It's dense, so it feels more like a meal. Very flavorful. Mmm. Why Egyptians use fava Beans and others garbanzo may have more to do with available food crops than taste. But I also learned, there is a third way - a hybrid.
MADAME LEILA SFEIR: Garbanzo beans and fava beans - it's my Lebanese way.
BABA: Madame Leila Sfeir moved here from Lebanon with her family over 30 years ago. She runs a small catering business in Fremont, California.
SFEIR: Who makes the best falafel? Me.
BABA: Leila's mixture - chock full of parsley and cilantro - looks more vegetable-y than beany. Yours is very green.
SFEIR: And tasty. I put a lot of green. I like the green.
BABA: After frying, she puts three falafel balls, along with lettuce and tomatoes, on top a dinner plate-sized pita bread.
SFEIR: Tahini sauce, soak it good.
BABA: She wraps it in the pita and the sandwich is complete.
SFEIR: I make it all yummy. I like it and I make it again and again and I keep making.
BABA: And maybe it's not really who makes the best falafel. As one food historian reminded me recently, it's the way you were brought up eating it - that means everything to you. For NPR News, I'm Hana Baba in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: And you can find falafel recipes and share a couple of your own at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Bon appetit. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.