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Before visiting Dubai, I believed that Arab cuisine is all about shawarma, gahwa (qahwa) and mandi. But in my food adventures, I stumbled across one of their tantalising dishes, falafel.


By: Nazish Islam

This healthy, vegetarian item is certainly not new to the Pakistani palate. When shisha was the rage, so was mint qahwa and falafel served with tahini, a sesame seed paste and some flavourful garlic sauce. With Arab and Mediteranean origins, falafel is a deep-fried ball or patty that is made from chickpeas or fava beans and spices, the most widely consumed street food or fast food in the Middle East.

It has been around for more than 1,000 years; however, its exact origin is controversial. According to a widely held theory, the dish was invented in Egypt about a thousand years ago by Coptic Christians who ate it during Lent as a replacement of meat. Others believe that the ancient Jews invented falafel during their slavery in Egypt, and brought it back with them to the holy land. It was in Israel that falafel has first found it’s way into pita bread and the Israelis who claim that it is their national food were also the first to spread it to Europe and the US, somewhere around the early 1970s. It then spread to other parts of the Middle East. At some point in its evolution, falafel went to the region known as Levant where fava beans (which were initially the base ingredient) were replaced by chickpeas. Bit by bit, it became a common appetiser which was added to the main course.

Falafel is the plural form of Arabic word ‘filfil’ meaning pepper. With variations, it is also used in other languages such as Persian pilpil and the Sanskrit word pippali meaning long pepper, or Armanic pilpal meaning small, round thing.

Though till the mid-20th century in North America falafal was found only in Middle Eastern and Jewish settlements, it is now a common and popular street food in many cities throughout the US.

During my aimless meandering in Ras Al Khaimah, I arrived at the local falafel shop called Cafeteria Falafel Abu Naeem. The ambience was good and one of the best falafel is served here.

Ground, soaked chickpeas are mixed with minced onions, garlic and finely chopped coriander and parsley. Added to this is a blend of spices that includes cumin, coriander, black pepper, sesame seeds and paprika. The balls are then deep-fried until the outside is crunchy and the inside cooked, yet juicy.

Falafel was served wrapped in pita bread and garnished with tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles and French fries. What adds texture, crunch and flavour are the greens, the trimmings and the sauces. The whole bread is coated with hummus and drizzled with tahini. For those who prefer it to be spicy, it is topped with a spicy hot sauce. While this is known as a falafel shawarma sandwich, the deep-fried, golden-brown falafel balls are served with a garlicky sauce too, sans bread, on a bed of greens.

Falafel is popular among vegetarians and vegans as a great low-calorie meatless alternative or, you may say, a vegetable counterpart of shawarma that is filled with nutrients like fibre and protein. As it is made with chickpeas, falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates and fibre. Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B and folate. Its high-soluble fibre content makes it effective in lowering cholesterol. While chickpeas are low in fat and contain no cholesterol, when falafel is fried, a considerable amount of fat is absorbed. Health-conscious people sometimes bake falafel to reduce the fat content while frying. Pita bread that is used to make falafel can carry up to 750g of calories; so, if you are highly concerned about calories, be careful of what toppings you pick and how they can affect your calorie count.

Falafel is locally available in several Lebanese and Mediteranean restaurants in the big cities. It is fairly easy to prepare at home, too.

To make falafel at home, you will need:

1 cup chickpeas (soaked overnight)

1 onion (chopped)

¼ cup fresh coriander

½ cup parsley

2 green chillies or 1 teaspoon paprika for a more authentic taste

3 garlic pods

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (or to taste)

½ teaspoon baking soda

Oil for deep frying

Drain water from the chickpeas soaking overnight and put in a food processor along with chopped onion, coriander, parsley, cumin seeds, chillies or paprika, garlic, black pepper, salt and baking soda and to blend together to make a thick paste. Take a handful of mixture and make a patty or ball like a kofta. Heat the oil in a pan at high temperature so that when the balls are dropped in, the outside gets crispy with a moist inside.

For making falafel, chickpeas are not cooked prior to use as cooking the chickpeas will cause the falafel to fall apart. If they are cooked/boiled, you will need to add some flour to add as a binder. Instead, they are soaked (sometimes with baking soda) overnight.

You can serve it with tahini, a creamy sauce made from roasted sesame seeds, salt and garlic powder whisked with warm water. Alternatively, you can serve it with hummus.

To make hummus, take boiled and strained chickpeas, one cup untoasted white sesame seeds, one cup olive oil, two garlic cloves, three tablespoons of lemon juice and salt. Blend all to make a fine paste. After dishing up, drizzle with some good quality olive oil.

As a main dish, it is served as sandwich stuffed in pita bread with lettuce, tomatoes and tahini. To assemble a bread wrap, put bread, toss some hummus for fixing, add three balls of falafel, now add your favourite salad dressing of chopped onion, cucumber, tomato and mint leaves. Drizzle some tahini or any spicy sauce that you like, wrap it up and enjoy.

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