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Falafel: The key to world peace?

Forget the debates about who invented it. In a time of division, falafel is something that can bring us together.
Lisa Goldberg
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Falafel

Goldberg was eight years old when she had her first falafel pita (Image: Anton/Unsplash).

Published: 15 May 2024

Last updated: 13 May 2024

It is 1972, Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv. I bite into the soft pita, crunch through the salad, find the super-hot burn-your-tongue crunchy edged fluffy-inside falafel balls. Lots of sauce running down my arm. I was eight and that was my first falafel pita. 

Almost 20 years later I returned to Israel on my honeymoon, and I will never forget my husband’s uncle taking us to his favourite “of course it is the best” falafel stand. How I loved it. I took notice of the red cabbage, the pickles, the charif (hot sauce), and I understood for the first time that there needed to be a bite of a falafel ball in every mouthful. 

For those who don’t know (although I can’t imagine anyone not knowing), a falafel pita (or wrap) is a globally revered Middle Eastern street food consisting of flatbread stuffed with falafel, salad, pickles and sauce.

The “falafel” part is a deep-fried ball or patty made of ground chickpeas and/or broad (fava) beans mixed with onions, garlic, spices – mostly ground coriander and cumin – and fresh herbs, usually in the form of parsley and coriander.

Could the controversy have anything to do with the fact that it is Israel that considers falafel a 'national dish'?

I always thought falafel was an Israeli dish, probably because my first discovery was in Israel. I realised years later that it was in fact a point of much debate. Or, rather, a huge controversy. I need to ask the obvious: is there any other food in the world that is quite as controversial, and could it have anything to do with the fact that it is Israel that considers it a “national dish”?

Anyone claiming that hummus is part of Israeli food culture garners the same pushback. Yet something like the hamburger, with its unconfirmed origin and subsequent dispersion across the world, has not become part of any food war.

According to food writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden, falafel started in the 1820s in Alexandria, Egypt. At first, its main ingredient was fava beans (or broad beans), a staple of the Egyptian diet. It seems that falafel took its name from fūl, meaning fava beans.

It then migrated across the Middle East. All those who adopted it made it their own, altering ingredients and components to suit their own tastes or to reflect the local agriculture. Countries of the modern Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Cyprus) traditionally use chickpeas instead of fava beans, and many nowadays use both. 

Goldberg's YouTube series Walking up an Appetite's episode on falafel was difficult to produce.

Different elements of the falafel pita will give away its origin. It could be the bread, what the patties are made of or spiced with, or the salad, sauce and pickles.

If it uses Lebanese flat bread and has lettuce, tomato and yoghurt sauce, and it is wrapped in paper with a twist at the top, it is probably Lebanese. If it uses a softer, thicker pita and has cabbage, tahini sauce and amba (Iraqi mango pickle), it is probably Israeli. If the falafel balls are made only with fava beans and loads of green herbs and sesame seeds, it is probably Egyptian.

There are many more variations and, unsurprisingly, the debates – as to its “nationality” and which country makes the best version – rage on.

In 2023 I co-produced and hosted a YouTube series Walking up an Appetite. In each episode I chose one dish, visited three cafes or restaurants across Sydney to eat different versions of that dish, and interviewed the chef. 

The falafel episode was the most difficult at every stage.

For the initial reccy to find my favourite falafel, I went to Lakemba, Bass Hill, Punchbowl, North Bexley, Newtown, Marrickville and more. I was always welcomed, yet when I sought the owner's or chef's permission to include them in the show, it was harder than any other episode to get a yes.

After a lot of testing, tasting and approaching venues, I managed to set up three restaurants and the filming schedule was fixed well in advance. Two days before filming, one called and cancelled. Another cancelled the interview the day before and, on the day of filming, our contact at the third just didn’t show. This was the only episode with only two venues and no interviews. 

Thank goodness we had planned for Sydney chef Michael Rantissi (Kepos Street Kitchen) to join me in my kitchen to make his outstanding Israeli (actually, according to Michael, “Tel Aviv”, where he was raised) falafel. He really saved the day and it reiterated for me that the Israeli falafel was indeed my favourite (but more on that in a minute).

My personal favourite is the Israeli falafel pita, for no other reason than it ticks all my falafel boxes.

I tried not to take the difficulties personally. I assumed they were busy trying to run a business and didn’t have the headspace for the show. I didn't think about it again and the episode was released in mid-2023.

Fast forward to October when the genie (palpable hatred of Israel, Zionists and often Jews) came out of the bottle. An Australian chef, the creator of a particularly good and unique falafel pita, posted online, ostensibly to a pro-Israel person, “... hope you, your entire 'state' and every single [person] within gets obliterated. [Everyone] collectively hates Israel, now and forever”. Nice.

Another – whose falafel I rated so highly – posted “narcissistic Zionist pigs” were not welcome and that they should “fuck off”. Lovely.

These comments, although not directed at me, were a startling affront. I started to think about all the problems we had with this episode. Could any of it have had anything to do with me being Jewish? Was this an extension of the falafel-related (or otherwise usual) vitriol against Israel? I don’t know the answer. As hard as it is not to draw that conclusion, I really want to assume not.

Through the show, I had hoped I could use the historically fraught falafel as evidence that food, particularly when brought to far off places through immigration, could bring people together. I am not giving up on that. I want to remain an optimist.

Rather than focusing on the challenges of creating the episode, or the odd outspoken (and racist) chef, let’s turn our attention to the absolutely irresistible falafel wraps that we would all be happy to line up for, across the world, whether they are Egyptian, Lebanese, Cypriot or Israeli, or have roots in Yemen, Syria, Jordan or Turkey, or are owned by Arabs, Jewish or non-Jewish Israelis or anyone else.

At the end of the day, my personal favourite is the Israeli falafel pita, for no other reason than it ticks all my falafel boxes: Deep golden well-spiced falafel balls, spongy pita (soft enough to make you go “mmmm” but strong enough to keep the filling crammed together), crunchy quick-pickled cabbage, slow-pickled cucumbers and smooth tahini sauce. (Since you asked, I’ll always add hummus and charif and say no to the amba). 

One day I hope to see you all at Kepos Street Kitchen in Sydney, L’As du Fallafel in Paris, or Hakosem in Tel Aviv for some of the best “Israeli” falafel in the world. We must keep hoping that falafel can indeed bring us all together.

Historian Alexander Lee said: “Despite all the debates about where it came from and whose it ‘really’ is, what matters is that it is something we all share and that we can all enjoy. If we keep eating it with that in mind, falafel can perhaps bring us together, rather than keeping us apart”.

About the author

Lisa Goldberg

As part of the Monday Morning Cooking Club, Lisa Goldberg has co-authored four best-selling cookbooks which document and preserve recipes from Jewish kitchens across Australia and the world. Lisa has also hosted and co-produced Walking up an Appetite, a food series on YouTube sharing all the things she loves to do - eat, walk, talk and cook.

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