Perfect Falafel: A Vegan Favorite and Middle Eastern Classic
How does one cook the perfect falafel…? That’s an odd question for a carnivore to raise, I know, but, you see… For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been obsessed with falafel! The humble and traditional Middle Eastern chickpea fritters that have taken the world by storm: Herbaceous, spicy and tasty, light yet filling and the perfect combination of textures: crunchy on the outside yet tender and fluffy on the inside.
Perfect falafels: You know you want some!
Like spicy Middle Eastern meatballs, really, only completely vegetarian – vegan even. Unlike many vegan staples, though, they’re popular with vegetarians and carnivores alike, maybe because – unlike many other vegan dishes – they’re not coined as a “replacement” dish for something normally only carnivores would enjoy. Falafel are not trying to be a vegan alternative to anything – they’re an entirely original recipe of their own, a perfect treat and a culinary piece of history, I might add. They’re also the vegan recipe every non-vegan chef should at the very least have in his repertoire.
Now, don’t worry, loyal readers, Johan, the carnivore, hasn’t hit his head. I know it’s a bit weird that someone usually preaching meat and abundance of saturated fats is suddenly advocating plant-based foods and veganism. But trust me on this one, guys, whether the carnivores amongst us want to admit it or not, these Middle Eastern vegetarian fritters are not only nutritious, filling and, dare I say, almost healthy, they’re also delicious, crunchy and so full of texture, proteins and bold, spicy flavors that I’ve actually heard die-hard carnivore falafel virgins utter the words: “I can’t believe this is not meat!” No, really!
Fear not, meat lovers: meat will be back on the menu in no time here on johanjohansen.dk
So bear with me for once as I present to you the ultimate vegan recipe: falafel – the only vegan recipe you’ll ever see on johanjohansen.dk – promise!
A brief history of Falafel
What first peaked my interest about falafel as a dish (other than the yum-factor) was its long and interesting history and the cultural impact that this humble fritter has had. If you’re not interested in the history of your food, you can skip ahead to the recipe by clicking right here. Otherwise, do read on to learn how falafel rose from humble roots to become an international street food favorite while helping shape and break the world as we know it in the process.
Granted, in dealing with the history of dishes we’ve cooked for this site, we’ve touched upon some highly debated origins and some pretty controversial foods. But falafel (as humble and beautiful of a dish as it is) probably takes the crown as most debated and controversial dish in culinary history. Not so much because of its origin but mainly because of its more recent history and cultural impact.
Falafel and controversy: Protester holds falafel-related sign during Anti-Trump rally. Source: unknown, viral image.
As far as origin goes, there’s nothing particularly controversial to say about falafel. As a matter of fact, as far as origin goes, there isn’t much to say about falafel. Not with any amount of certainty anyway. It would appear, you see, that falafel as a dish may well predate modern, written history.
Most food historians agree that falafel is an ancient dish. Most likely of Egyptian origin. Some sources trace it back as far as the time of the Pharaohs while a number of sources generally link the dish to the Copts, an ancient Christian community which has resided in Egypt since the formation of the early Christian church around 42 AD. The Copts, sources argue, would eat falafel as a substitute for meat during lent, a very reasonable theory if you ask me.
Generelly, little is known about this ancient prototype of our modern street food favorite. All we know is that centuries and centuries ago, Egyptians started grinding their highly treasured protein-rich stable, the fava bean with herbs and spices to create what would eventually become a culinary smash hit with hipsters from Melbourne over Copenhagen to Los Angeles.
That’s right, one of the earliest and known facts about the world’s favorite chickpea fritter is that it was not even originally made from chickpeas, it was made from fava beans! But how, then, did an ancient Egyptian creation based on fava beans become a modern day, internationally acclaimed chickpea-based street food sensation? It’s got a little to do with internationalization and culture clashes.
The Great Falafel Controversy: Falafel in the Middle East
Regardless of who exactly invented falafel and where or when, many culinary anthropological sources agree that falafel quickly gained a foothold in the famed Egyptian port city of Alexandria. From there, the dish quickly spread wildly across the Mediterranean region where it grew immensely in popularity in the Middle East, much to the joy of Arabs and ancient Jewish communities alike.
Interestingly enough, though, this new Middle Eastern version of falafel differed from the supposedly original Egyptian archetype in one very important way: whether made by Arabs or Jews, the Middle Eastern version of falafel was made entirely from chickpeas! The Middle Easterners simply swapped the Egyptians’ beloved fava bean with a favorite legume of their own – the chickpea – creating essentially a remarkably similar yet completely different dish that is much more instantly recognizable to the modern falafel-fan. But this dodgy switch of legume is arguably the very least controversial aspect of the history of falafel in the Middle East.
Palestinian man preparing falafel in Ramallah on the West Bank. Source: WikiMedia, Public Domain.
As an important culinary and cultural cornerstone of many communities and a national dish of Egypt, Palestine and Israel, falafel has certainly led to some tension and controversy amongst Middle Eastern communities regarding history, origin, tradition and cultural differences. Especially (and not surprisingly) so in the volatile and fragile place that is Palestine region after the creation of the Jewish state. In this fragile and tense environment, the dish has warped from comfort food to controversy food after a resurgence of popularity within the Jewish community in the 1950’s.
Following this modern falafel boom, some Palestinians have expressed resentment toward Israeli Jews for what they see as an appropriation of their dish, and accusations have flown the other way, too, in all fairness. Food is feelings after all, and food is history and the Middle East has certainly seen its fair share of hurt feelings and bloody history. To make matters worse for the humble fritter, assertions of copyright infringement have even been raised against Israel by the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association… Conflict, anger, law suits and copyright infringement claims? Really? All over falafel, a simple and traditional dish made from chickpeas… Or fava beans, if you ask the Egyptians, of course, but that’s an entirely different controversy!
Beyond the Middle East: Falafel as a popular street food
From its native home in Africa and the Middle East, falafel has spread far and wide across the Western world at the hands of Arab and Jewish immigrants. The spread has happened slowly and gradually, really only gaining momentum over the past few decades. Until about 30 years ago, falafel to Westerners was mainly perceived as a somewhat obscure stable of Arab neighborhoods and communities, if they had even heard of the dish at all. It has obviously, however, since gained widespread popularity and appeal as an alternative to other street food options such as burgers, hotdogs, gyros and kebab.
In Continental Europe, the falafel craze is believed to have originated in West Berlin’s hip and trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood where it started as immigrant food but quickly reached mass appeal with the young, hip and progressive crowd which carried the trends with them far and wide to other towns and countries, including my native Denmark.
In Northern America, too, falafel was also largely unknown outside of Arab neighborhoods until the end of the 1970’s but has since exploded in popularity on a constantly growing and ever-evolving metropolitan foodie scene. Today, this ancient dish that grew into an early 21st century favorite amongst vegetarians and vegans alike is enjoying a true global renaissance fueled by a combination of alternative youths, metropolitan hipsters, bustling food truck scenes and a huge demand for exciting and affordable lunch options and exciting street food in general.
Falafel has spread all across the world, even to Cape Town, South Africa. Source: Syriana Food Truck.
As the spread and popularization of falafel through Eastern Europe, Central Europe and onwards was carried out mainly by Arab and Jewish immigrants, the chickpea falafel is quite obviously the version that has won fame and accolade throughout the world as a street food of choice.
So much so that even Johan, the carnivore and self-proclaimed porky-tarian, is now writing a post and a recipe on the subject, originally entitled: “Homemade Falafel – my favorite vegan treat!” …
Falafel doesn’t have to be street food or something you would only eat at a restaurant, you see. Falafel can easily be made in the comfort of your own home. In fact, making falafel at home is much easier than some people would lead you to believe!
You see, falafel is worked up by some home chefs (egged on by personal trauma and bad experiences, I’m sure) as a dish to fear, a project that will either crumble on you during the frying process or turn out weird and soggy. But, really, no, falafel is not difficult. Listen to me: You can do this! And in doing so, your falafel will not fail on you as long as you play your cards right and follow a few simple rules. Simply follow these few simple steps below for making perfect falafel at home and learn how to avoid falafel disaster!
Failafel: How to avoid crumbling falafel and other disasters
One of the main worries and complaints about homemade falafel, I’ve heard from other home cooks and fellow bloggers alike, is the problem of exploding falafels: i.e. falafels that either lose their shape, break into pieces or disintegrate completely during cooking.
Falafel disaster is a real concern to a lot of people and sadly, it’s keeping many from cooking falafel at home: It happens randomly, it seems, regardless of the recipe used, and has led to much frustration and numerous downright hissy fits… But not on my part! I’ve never had this travesty happen to me, you see, as I’ve always followed an easy set of rules for perfect falafel. And fear not, young and budding falafel maker, I’m here today to teach you the magic of my ways: five simple tips to keep your perfect falafel from turning into failafel!
Do NOT use canned chickpeas for homemade falafel
The first and single best advice I can give you regarding perfect falafel is to NEVER use canned chickpeas in homemade falafel! To make perfect falafel, start with quality (organic) dried chickpeas, soak them overnight, drain, process and shape. Yes, you heard me. Use them as is. Do not worry about cooking the chickpeas, simply process and use.
They’ll hydrate overnight and once processed properly, they’ll cook beautifully in the oil all while retaining their shape and texture. You’ll not only save time, you’ll get much more nicely textured, pliable and spongy yet crunchy falafel balls. The major secret (if ever there was one) to great falafel is to not overly process the chickpeas. Canned chick peas have been cooked, processed and brined which makes for an undesirable texture for falafel. Rehydrated, uncooked chickpeas on the other hand? There’s your key to falafel fame!
Do not use bread or breadcrumbs in homemade falafel
So, this is weird… One thing I’ve seen in some traditional family recipes for falafel is a call for flour, breadcrumbs or even bread as a binder. I shan’t say how this tradition came about, but with all due respect to Middle Eastern housewives out there, I don’t think this particular trick is doing us Westerners any great favors in shaping and making perfect falafel.
Now, I realize this is where I’m going to have a lot of explaining and apologizing to do to Middle Eastern mothers and daughters alike, but I’ll go ahead and risk it and say that bread or breadcrumbs does not belong in falafel. Bread does nothing for the flavor and, in my mind, certainly does not improve the texture either, au contraire. It acts as a binder of water, creates a crumbly patty that is all the more fragile when exposed to the hostile environment that is boiling hot oil.
Now, flour may work, but really… We’re making Middle Eastern legume patties here, not pan-fried meatballs… Stale bread or breadcrumbs? “Fuggetaboutit!” I’d say start without any binder and if you feel you really need it (that is if the dough is too wet and the patties won’t come together even with force), then add a bit of flour as a binder and try again.
Make sure that the falafel mixture is the right consistency
A great indicator as to whether your falafel will be a success or crumble into failafel is to check the consistency of the falafel mixture. A perfect falafel should be neither too wet nor too dry and crumbly. It should be moldable and retain its shape once pressed into balls or patties.
To make great falafel you need raw chickpeas, spices, aromatics, maybe a little flour and nothing less. Blend it till it looks about this and start scooping and frying away.
In other words, you should be able to form the dough into a firm ball using your hands, it should retain its shape and neither crumble nor collapse under its’s own weight. It’s okay if a little moisture escapes the ball as you squeeze it together, but it should retain its shape once firmly pressed together. If the dough is too thin and wet, you may stir in some regular flour and let it sit a little. Too crumbly? Try simply processing it a little more then maybe add a bit of oil or water if needed.
It’s not difficult to reach the correct consistency for falafel. Experiment here and make note of your changes so you may get them right next time around.
Make sure the oil is hot and plenty enough
When I cook falafel at home, I deep fry them! If I’m not at home, I shallow fry them in as much oil as I can get away with adding before my host or hostess starts looking at me all funny-like! Why? Because submerging the falafel in a lot of oil– very hot oil, that is – really helps with the frying process.
Fry your falafels in plenty of hot oil for perfect crunchy perfection!
The impact of the hot oil forms an almost instant crust around the fritter, helping it retain its shape through the cooking process.. And, well, the greater the area exposed, the better the crust-formation and shape-retention. It’s a simple as that. Worried about all that oil being unhealthy and bad for you? Well, don’t be! As long as you make sure your oil is hot enough, your fry process will be if not healthy, then certainly no less healthy than so many other ways of preparation.
Ever noticed that angry bubbling and hissing that takes place when a piece of food hits a batch of really hot oil? That is the water content escaping the food in the shape of steam. And therein lies the key to deep frying: as long as the water pushes out, the oil has a hard time pushing in. The temperature of the oil will instead create a crispy shell on the outside of the object being fried which helps further prevent the food from sucking up oil, creating a result that is crispy on the outside, fluffy and delicious on the inside. If on the other hand, the temperature drops too quickly, the bubbling stops and oil seeps in. Those soggy, oil-saturated, pale deep-fried foods we all fear and hate? Those are usually a sign of a crowded pan running at a much too low temperature.
Want falafel that retain their shape during cooking and come out golden brown, delicious and crunchy rather than soggy and oily? Then make sure to fry them in plenty of 180-190C oil – and make sure to do it in batches if you’re cooking more than 6 or so at a time. The temperature of the food greatly lowers the temperature of the oil and it needs time to bounce back up – unless, of course, you want soggy balls… And trust me, guy, you don’t want soggy balls!
Pro tip: Bread your falafels for extra crunch
Alright, granted. This one isn’t as much a tip to avoid disaster as it is a tip to achieve perfection. Assume for a moment that you’ve done everything right and you want your falafel to turn out extra perfect. How does one perfect perfection? One breads one’s falafel balls!
This is a step that came to me out of the blue when I was working on the second or third iteration of this recipe. My falafel balls were ever so slightly on the sticky side and so I figured instead of adding flour to the mix risking throwing the balance even further off track, why not just roll them in flour to create a crust during cooking and help them retain their shape? They would have probably held up perfectly without any added flour of any kind, but at this point I was simply curious. So I whipped out a plate, added some flour, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne. Rolled my falafel balls in the mixture, fried them… And they came out absolutely perfect!
Is this step necessary? No, absolutely not. Does it make for some pretty awesome extra-crispy falafel? You bet your sweet, little ass it does!
How to make Falafel: The Perfect Falafel Recipe
Now, with those friendly words of advice out of the way. Let’s have a look at a simple, basic recipe for falafel. Before we do, though, let’s leave room for a bit of a disclaimer lest I risk getting hurt. Here’s the thing. I’d barely gotten around to posting a teaser image for this post on my Instagram account before someone commented “Round falafel? That’s new!”
Ahem, well, so here’s the deal guys: I make no claim of being neither Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian or even Israeli for that matter. As far as I’ve been able to deduct from my research on the subject, this recipe is pretty damn authentic and to the point (for Middle Eastern falafel anyway). Still, these are white boy falafel, yo, and I’m sorry for any mistakes or mishaps along the way that go against your family’s recipe. As much as I’d love to agree with the Brothers Green who in their anti-authenticity manifesto famously stated that “Authenticity is a bullshit word” because authenticity generally means different things to different people!, I understand that food is feeling and that people will naturally treasure their family’s recipes. So, Middle Eastern friends, take no offence and, really, if you *do* have family anecdotes, tips or tricks to share, I would love to hear from you in the comments!
- 300 grams chickpeas
- One onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 bunch of parsley, stems and all, roughly chopped
- 1.5 teaspoonn salt
- 2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 0.5 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 0.5 teaspoon black pepper
- Zest of one lemon
- High smoke point vegetable oil for frying (Sunflower, Peanut or Canola works well)
- Black Pepper
- 4 tablespoons tahini paste
- Juice of one lemon
- 2 tablespoons water
- Two garlic cloves, finely minced
- Salt to taste
- Put chickpeas in a bowl, cover with plenty of water and leave to soak overnight.
- In a bowl, stir together tahini, water and lemon juice, until smooth and runny in consistency. This may require some patience.
- Add more water if mixture is too thick and keep stirring till you have a sauce-like consistency.
- Add two cloves of finely chopped garlic and season to taste with a bit of salt.
- Cover and refrigerate until needed.
- Drain chickpeas and add to a blender or food processor along with onions, 3 cloves of garlic, cayenne pepper, parsley, lemon zest, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper.
- Blend mixture to a coarse texture somewhere between couscous and a paste, add a little water and process some more if the paste seems dry and crumbly.
- Using a tablespoon or scoop grab about a meatball’s worth of the falafel paste and squeeze it into the shape of a ball using your hands. It should come together with some force and retain its shape.
- If mixture seems too wet, add a little flour, let sit for a few minutes and try again. If on the other hand, it seems too dry and crumbly, try processing a little more and maybe adding a little water.
- Once you’re happy with the consistency of the paste, form the remainder into balls.
- Heat oil to 180C and fry the falafels no more than six to eight at a time for about 3-4 minutes per batch or until golden brown and delicious on all surfaces.
- Leave falafel to drain for about a minute on a cooling rack or fat-absorbing paper.
Plating and serving Falafel
… And there you go, friends, with a little knowledge and patience, you should now have created the perfect falafel: addictively crunchy, spicy, herbaceous and irresistible… Now what? Well, obviously now, we plate up and eat? But how, you ask?
In the most simple of ways, falafel can be served plain on its own, possibly with a tahini or hummus dip, as part of meze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of tapas.
A perfect falafel is crunchy on the outside, yet perfectly moist and tender within. Just like this.
For a more substantial meal, falafel is usually served with or as part of a salad of sorts, often incorporating onion, tomatoes, cucumber and herbs as well as a combination of spicy and/or cooling sauces. A personal favorite of mine here includes falafel with a side of tabbouleh salad, tahini dressing and a perverse slathering of fermented hot sauce such as Sambal Oelek or even (Middle Eastern friends, please close your eyes and ears now) the All-American favorite, Sriracha!
For a simple Tabbouleh salad to go with your falafel, simply soak 200 grams of bulgur in boiling water for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and mix with a diced cucumber, two diced tomatoes, roughly chopped parsley, the drizzle with juice of half a lemon, two tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper.
In need of an even more substantial meal (you carnivore monster, you!) or an easy way of consuming falafel on the go? Then consider a falafel wrap or pita in which falafel is paired with salad, pickled vegetables, hot sauces and dressings made from yoghurt (that’s so non-vegan!) or tahini (that’s so very vegan!), then wrapped in bread for easy consumption. Traditionally, un-leavened bread such as pita or Arabian flatbread are used for this purpose.
This final approach to falafel consumption is probably the one most popular in the West amongst lunching middle class office workers on the go and nocturnal, drunken midnight warriors alike. However way you chose to serve them, I hope you’ll give homemade falafel a try. They’re so much better than the mass-produced stuff you get at the store and some inferior takeout stands. Try them on once and you’ll be a convert for life… Go on, carnivores, I dare you!