Falling for falafel

August 8, 2019

It may seem hard to remember, but there was a time before falafel conquered the world. But to experience it at its tastiest best, head for a Middle Eastern cooking class to prepare a fresh batch of these crunchy pillows of chickpea goodness.

Whipping up your falafel might seem easier than deciding where to go for the most "authentic" recipe. Falafel is a matter of considerable national pride across the region, and whether you're in Cairo or Jerusalem, Amman or Istanbul, you're likely to be told that you've arrived in the true spiritual home of the dish.

Falafel as we know it was almost certainly first made in Egypt. It's ironic then that the Egyptians choose to make theirs with fava beans rather than chickpeas — a nod, they say, to the beans that were once so popular with their pyramid-building ancestors. In Egypt, falafel aren't even known as falafel, but called taamiya, meaning "a bite of food" — as succinct a description of this no-nonsense snack that you are likely to come across.

But whichever pulse you go for, the first process in making the perfect falafel is to grind them into a thick dough. Around half a kilo or a pound of dried chickpeas soaked overnight will make around 50 falafel. It sounds like a lot, but they disappear quickly into hungry mouths when they're fresh and hot.

Flavour is all when it comes to falafel, so as you grind the mix in a food processor, you thrown in dried cumin, coriander and paprika to give a little bite, and garlic to make them extra moreish. A handful each of fresh parsley and coriander add a fresh edge, as well as giving the delicate green colour that's the mark of a proper falafel. A teaspoon of baking powder will make the dough fluff up when you cooked, to ensure that they are as light on the inside as they are crunchy on the outside.

So far, so easy. The real skill in falafel making is in what comes next, with a large pan of very hot oil. A practised falafel chef can turn their bowl of dough into a bobbing mass of frying balls, plopping the raw dough into the oil with one swift movement and scooping out and draining the cooked results with another.

The trick, as so often in the kitchen, is to have the right tool for the job. You'll be handed something that looks like a half-sized ice-cream scoop, that's perfectly designed to pick up the perfect amount of falafel mix, and then release it into the oil. You can buy them in any cookware shop or souk — they make perfect souvenirs from your trip or presents for the culinary-minded.

With a little confidence an practice, you'll soon have a heap of perfectly cooked falafel ready to be shared. With a large flat-bread to wrap them in, some tahini and yoghurt for drizzling, some thick slices of tomato and perhaps a sharp pickle or two, the perfect lunch awaits — wherever you are in the Middle East.

Getting there

Check out our small group tours to North Africa and the Middle East here.

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