Falafel, the ubiquitous street food of the Middle East

I spent half of one youthful summer in the Middle East, working on an archaeological dig. Most weekends I went into the nearby town and gorged myself on the falafel sold by a local street vendor.

I learned two important lessons that summer. One was that the nitty-gritty part of archaeology absolutely bored me stiff and I needed to end any romantic dreams I had of choosing it for a career.

And the other was that falafel was absolutely amazing.

I’d had it before, but this was better. Maybe it was because I was in the part of the world where it was born. Maybe it was because the guy I was buying it from happened to make exceptionally good falafel.

Maybe it was because street food always tastes better on the street.

But for whatever reason, the falafel I got that summer remains for me the ideal version of the popular Middle Eastern treat.

Falafel are balls of spiced chickpeas that are fried and stuffed into pita with tomatoes and pickles, and drizzled with a condiment. It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are a thousand different variations.

The first source of alternative recipes is the part about spiced chickpeas. For one, in certain parts of the Middle East, fava beans are used in place of or mixed in with the chickpeas.

But of more concern are the spices. Most falafel you get in America has a decided greenish tint from all the parsley, cilantro, mint and scallions that are mixed into the mashed chickpeas, along with garlic, cumin, coriander seed, hot pepper and a host of other ingredients. Fava beans are also green.

To my palate, that is just too much going on. I like falafel because I like chickpeas, and the more flavors that compete with the chickpeas only wind up detracting from what I consider to be the purity of the falafel experience.

When I make falafel, I stick to the basics: chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley and cumin (which maybe isn’t exactly basic, but it blends well with the chickpeas). My falafel is brown, not green.

The other part of falafel that is subject to innumerable variations is the condiments with which it is served.

In America, we tend to use just one, tahini. But in the Land of Falafel, each falafel stand offers at least a half-dozen sauces to go in your pita. I remember particularly a bright red hot sauce, which I now know was harissa, the pride of North Africa. I also remember a curry sauce that I liked, but I can’t remember enough about it now to try to reproduce it.

So I made a batch of harissa, which had the proper color and consistency, but somehow lacked the heat I was craving. So I added a few arbol peppers, which ratcheted up the heat level to exactly where I wanted it.

I also made z’hug, the famous green hot sauce from Yemen. This has a similar level of heat to harissa (I used serrano peppers, which are hot without being ridiculous), but a completely different flavor. Harissa is round and warm; z’hug is fresh and bright.

A brief reference in a cookbook reminded me that my favorite falafelmonger also had sauerkraut as a condiment, which I never tried at the time. But I could see how it would work; sauerkraut is essentially pickled cabbage, and pickled turnips and cucumbers are also part of a traditional falafel.

So I bought some, instead of making it myself, because there is no need to go crazy. For that matter, I bought the pita, too — and the pickled turnips.

But I made my own quick pickles, which I call quickles. They’re so easy, so fast and so fun. And they go great on a falafel.

Falafel? They’re more like fal-awesome.

Recipe

FALAFEL

Yield: About 18 balls

1 cup dried chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, or 2 (151/2-ounce) cans

1/2 large onion, roughly chopped, about 1 cup

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

3/4 teaspoon salt

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 to 6 tablespoons flour

Oil for frying

If using dried chickpeas, put in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain. If using canned chickpeas, rinse and drain.

Place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor. Add the parsley, salt, garlic and cumin. Process until blended, but not pureed.

Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. Add more flour, if necessary. You want to add enough flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn out into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.

Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts.

Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little flour. Then fry about 6 balls at once for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown (the temperature of the oil will drop). Drain on paper towels.

To serve in the traditional manner, stuff half a pita with the balls and add chopped tomatoes, diced sweet onion, diced green pepper, pickled turnips and a sauce made from tahini thinned with water. Or add pickled cucumber or sauerkraut, or such sauces as harissa or z’hug.

Per serving: 108 calories; 7 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 3 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate

Source: Adapted from a recipe from “The Foods of Israel Today,” by Joan Nathan

HARISSA

Yield: 1 1/2 cups, about 16 servings

4 ounces dried hot red New Mexican chili peppers (about 18), stems removed

1/2 cup olive oil, divided

7 to 8 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste

Soak the peppers in warm water until soft; drain and squeeze out any excess water. Place in food processor with 1/4 cup of the oil, garlic, cumin, coriander and salt, and process until it forms a thick puree. Place in a jar, pour on the remaining olive oil, cover and refrigerate.

Let it sit for a few days before using for best results. Top with more olive oil after each use. This sauce also goes well with grilled meat.

Per serving (not including the 1/4 cup of oil used in the top of the jar): 35 calories; 4 g fat

Source: Recipe from “The Foods of Israel Today,” by Joan Nathan

Z’HUG

Yield: 1 cup, about 10 servings

4 ounces fresh green serrano or jalapeno peppers, stems removed

1 whole head garlic, each clove peeled

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, rinsed and dried

1/2 cup fresh parsley, rinsed and dried

1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, or 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 green cardamom pods, peeled

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional to cover

Place peppers with the garlic, cilantro, parsley, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom and salt to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Chop until almost pureed, then add 1/4 cup oil and puree.

Remove to a glass jar and just cover with additional olive oil. The z’hug will keep for several months, covered in an airtight jar, in the refrigerator.

Per serving (not including the oil used in the top of the jar): 35 calories; 4 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 1 g carbohydrate

Source: “The Foods of Israel Today” by Joan Nathan

QUICKLES (QUICK PICKLES)

Yield: 2 pounds, 12 servings

2 pounds cucumbers (small is best, but not necessary)

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 teaspoon dill seed

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup water

2 1/4 teaspoons pickling or kosher salt

Wash cucumbers and cut into spears or coins. Small cucumbers may be kept whole.

Into an impeccably clean jar, place garlic, dill and red pepper flakes. Pack the cucumbers into the jar; trim the ends of spears if they will stand taller than 1/2 inch below the jar’s rim.

In a small saucepan, heat together vinegar, water and salt to a rolling boil. Pour liquid over cucumbers, leaving a little room at the top. Close jars and refrigerate. They will be ready to serve by the time they are chilled, and will stay fresh for several weeks.

Source: The Gazette

Victoria Dioh