Try Falafel : A Gateway To Egypt

What those little crispy balls mean to me ?

Falafel frying process. Digital image. Tori Avey. January 5, 2011,

Remembering how I usually used to wake up to the delicious smell of my mom’s falafel frying in our kitchen, on Fridays in my home country – Egypt, where my father, mother, brother, sister and I used to have brunch together. The main dish was falafel, which a deep-fried ball, or a flat or doughnut-shaped patty, made from ground fava beans. Fresh herbs, spices, and onion relatives are commonly added to the dough. Served hot and fresh with sesame seed spread on top, my mouth is getting watery just from describing this heavenly taste dish.

So you can imagine your own joy, eating a plate of those warm spice and crunch balls with tahini sauce or hummus, and slightly toasted warm pita bread, on the sidewalk of a café in the Big Apple – New York City on a sunny day. For me, falafel is not just a dish served on a meal table, it is a symbol of love and warmth of my family’s weekly gathering. We ate falafel on Fridays only. I would say the reason behind this, is that my working mom likes to make it fresh from scratch and falafel’s preparation takes time so it will be like a treat on the Egyptian weekend – Fridays.

These Friday’s brunches considered a holy gathering, not to be missed. This gathering helped us as a family, united till today. I consider it as a tradition, which I would pass it to my children.

Why there is a controversial debate about falafel’s origin ?

From the very beginning, the falafel has been part of many cultures. The origin of falafel is still controversial until today. The word falafel can refer to the fritters themselves or to sandwiches filled with them. Many countries claim the falafel as their national dish.

A widely held theory is that the dish was invented in Egypt about 1000 years ago by Coptic Christians, who ate it as a replacement for meat during Lent – It is a solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

As Alexandria is a port city in Egypt, it was possible to export the dish and name to other areas in the Middle East. Especially that the Falafel is also known as taʿamiya (Egyptian Arabic: طعمية ) in many parts of Egypt; the word is derived from a diminutive form of the Classical Arabic word ṭaʿām (طعام, “food”); the particular form indicates “a unit” of the given root in this case (ط ع م, having to do with taste and food), thus meaning “a little piece of food” or “small tasty thing”.(Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, in Alexandria, it is called falafel, which supports the theory of exporting the dish through Alexandria port to other Arab countries. Still, it is not clear so far, why the people of Alexandria city called the dish as, falafel.

The dish later migrated northwards to the Levant, known in Arabic as the Bilad al-Sham and Mashriq, which covers a large area of the Eastern Mediterranean. Levantine cuisine continues to carry an influentially mainstream character in the majority of the dishes today. It is found in the modern states of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and parts of southern Turkey. But the falafel faced changes across cultures, where the main ingredient of Egyptian falafel – Fava beans, was replaced by chickpeas or a mix of both. (Kantor,2002) . Then Falafel became a national dish for Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, and other countries, fueling the debate of falafel’s origin till today. “Many Palestinians believe that Israelis have stolen falafel “and renamed it as “Israeli’s National Snack”.

How do you eat falafel?

The falafel dish turned from a main meal of the medium and low-income Egyptian families to be just a snack or a vegetarian option to other individuals across the world. Even falafel became a trend for the high Egyptian society, calling it Green Burger.

Falafel balls may also be eaten alone as a snack or served as part of an assortment of appetizers known as a meze in the Levantine and American cuisine. (Wright,2003)

The dish ‘s nutritional value is the secret behind its widespread over the world. Falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber.


How was the falafel introduced to the American market?

Recently, Falafel has become popular among vegetarians and vegans, as an alternative to meat-based street foods. Even big companies like McDonald’s saw the falafel’s profit opportunity, it was included and served as “McFalafel” on its breakfast menu all over Egypt and Sweden.

Mc Falafel.Digital image.Destination Tips.January 14, 2015.

In addition, the American grocery store chain “Trader Joe’s” saw the potential American market for falafel. They invented falafel Mix and published their own recipe to make savory falafel waffles, which I personally found it very interesting.

Falafel mix by Trader Joe’s.Digital image.Trader Joe’s .

Furthermore, The Subway chain introduced the falafel as a vegetarian option on its menu in the U.S for a limited time. Falafel’s foray into subway stores was a logical step in the food’s journey into the American mainstream. But I think, falafel did not stay on their menu for a long time because of the way, the falafel was processed to be a commercial food, scarifying its quality, losing its authentic and ethnic taste during the Americanization of the falafel, to be fast-food mass production. In the end, the offered patties were slightly mushy and not tasty as the original should have been. (Ali,2012)

Subway Falafel Sandwich.Digital image.Compassion over killing. 10 October, 2013.

But still, Subway ‘s wide marketing campaign helped the falafel to become more widely used as a source of vegan protein cross cultures especially the American culture in particular.

In the United States, falafel’s versatility has allowed for the reformulating of recipes for meatloaf, sloppy joes and spaghetti and meatballs into vegetarian dishes. Knowing the assimilation of immigrants into American culture has been a constant feature of US history, falafel dish became popular in the U.S. It took the first place according to “the Best street food in New York City — from falafel to bagels “article, published on the famous news website CNN, (by Krisanne Fordham, Updated 25th September 2018).

Also, the New York Times praises the falafel for its “warm spice and crunch “(Kantor, 2002), where many articles discussed the falafel as a spread of the Middle Eastern culture, and where can you eat the best falafel in NYC, at The Falafel King of Astoria – Freddy Zeideia. (Kilgannon, 2016)

The spread of falafel attracted many writers to make the golden crispy balls, their main topic and seek people’s reviews about its taste. A writer even published a recipe of homemade falafel which you can try it yourself on the New York Times.

What is the American style recipe for falafel? Did the falafel lost its value during the Americanization ?

Mark Bittman, mentioned “You cannot say enough about falafel “in his NYT article. Therefore, I would like to pass you his quick delicious recipe for my readers to try it at home


  • 1 ¾ cups dried chickpeas or 1 cup dried chickpeas plus 3/4 cup dried split fava beans
  • 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
  • ½ onion, quartered
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • Scant teaspoon cayenne, or to taste; or mild chili powder to taste
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
  • Neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola, for deep-frying  


 Put beans in a large bowl and cover with water by 3 to 4 inches — they will triple in volume as they soak. Soak for 24 hours, checking once or twice to see if you need to add water to keep the beans covered.

  1. Drain beans well and transfer to a food processor with all the remaining ingredients except the oil; pulse until minced but not puréed; add water tablespoon by tablespoon if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep the mixture as dry as possible. (Too much water and your falafel will fall apart. If that happens, add more ground beans.) Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, cayenne or a little more lemon juice as needed.
  2. Put at least 2 to 3 inches of oil (more is better) in a large deep saucepan (the narrower the pan, the less oil you need; but the more oil you use, the more you can cook at one time). Turn heat to medium-high and heat oil to about 350 (a pinch of batter will sizzle immediately; a piece of falafel will sink halfway to the bottom, then rise).
  3. Scoop out heaping tablespoons of the mixture and shape it into balls or small patties. Fry in batches, without crowding, until nicely browned, turning as necessary; total cooking time per batch will be less than 5 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

In the end, the falafel’s origin will remain a controversial topic between cultures but in a delicious way. The very interesting thing about the Americanization of falafel is, its change from being just a regular national food in Egypt and other countries, to be such exotic food in the United States, served in a different way like savory waffles. Very creative innovation, I admit that Transcultural Objects do not always lose their original values during cross-cultural movement.

Works Cited


  1. Wright, Clifford A. (2003). Little foods of the Mediterranean: 500 fabulous recipes for antipasti, tapas, hors d’oeuvre, meze, and more (Illustrated ed.). Harvard Common Press. ISBN 1-55832-227-2
  2. Sami Zubaida, “National, Communal and Global Dimensions in Middle Eastern Food Cultures” in Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, London and New York, 1994 and 2000, ISBN 1-86064-603-4, p. 35.
  3. Krisanne Fordham. “Best Street Food in New York City — from Falafel to Bagels.” CNN, Cable News Network, 25 Sept. 2018,
  4. Bittman, Mark. “Recipe of the Day: Falafel.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2008,
  5. Kilgannon, Corey. “The Falafel King of Astoria.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2016,
  6. Kantor, Jodi. “A History of the Mideast In the Humble Chickpea.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 July 2002,
  7. Ali, Tanveer. “The subway Falafel Sandwich and the Americanization of Ethnic food”.Good,10 February 2012.


Falafel : Fun Facts

  1.  The current record for largest falafel ball, 74.75 kg (164.4 lb.), was set on 28 July 2012 in Amman, Jordan by the Landmark hotel. Using a standard recipe, 10 chefs prepared the 130 cm diameter falafel ball. .
  2.  The record for largest serving of falafel, 5,173 kg (11,404 lb 8 oz), was set by Chef Ramzi Choueiri and the students of Al-Kafaat University (Lebanon) in Beirut on 9 May 2010.