There’s nothing I’d rather eat than falafel. I could eat it anytime of day, all day, every day. But if I did that, I’d look like one big falafel ball pretty quickly, so I don’t eat it nearly as often as I’d like. I save it for special occasions when I feel I deserve it and want to be indulgent and decadent. Or when life just sucks so bad that I need something to remind me that there are some good parts to it, too.
Falafel is one of those faux-healthy foods. You can convince yourself that you’re doing something good for yourself because there’s green stuff in there, an absence of animal products and in some places you can even get a whole-wheat pita, upping the faux-healthy quotient.
The establishments where you can get a whole wheat pita usually serve a gentrified, americanized kind of falafel. Chain restaurants like Prêt A Manger serve a bastardized version that’s wrapped in a tortilla and smothered in Swiss cheese and Marinara sauce. Ugh – cheese and spaghetti sauce in a falafel? I think that’s a falafel-ball pizza and I think that’s a bad idea. You can go to Crisp, where the falafel balls are crisp, indeed, lightly fried and not greasy at all. But no tahini, no pickled vegetables and they specialize in weird combinations like the Mexican, the Exotic and the Taj. If I wanted pineapple, I’d get a fruit cup, I wouldn’t go out for falafel.
And that’s the other thing – I have to go out for falafel. You would think (as I did) that a ubiquitous food that can be made in a street cart would be effortless to replicate at home. The recipe is ridiculously easy and doesn’t require any super-exotic ingredients or special kitchen equipment. In fact, I’m sure falafel can be made over an open fire as the word falafel is derived from ancient Sanskrit and the food has probably been made for more than 2,000 years. But maybe you have to be Sanskrit to make falafel balls that actually stick together. After soaking and grinding chickpeas and splattering hot oil all over the kitchen, I ended up with inedible, grease-soaked chickpea crumbs. So I leave it to the professionals, the street vendors, who will serve up a perfect falafel for two bucks. I’m pretty sure I spent more than that just on the fancy-schmancy oil I drenched my kitchen in.
I do like falafel from the street; the conditions it’s prepared in may be questionable, but hey, I was in the army – I’ve eaten dirt – and kind of liked it. I’m counting on the hot oil to kill any deadly pathogens. Street falafel is the most authentic – fluffy, hot, homemade pitas, deep-fried chickpea balls, salad, pickled veggies, tahini, hummus and hot sauce. I never take the white sauce – it just looks suspect. I don’t know what’s in it and I have a sinking feeling that it’s thrown together from whatever condiments were left over the day before.
Then there’s the role of falafel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, this innocent little sandwich has increased tensions in the Middle East. Israel has appropriated falafel as its unofficial national snack. Palestinians (and other Arab nations) don’t like this because they contend that the falafel originated in Egypt. One theory says that it was first eaten by Copts as a meat replacement during Lent. It may even date back to the pharaonic period which would lend its choice as Israel’s national food a peculiar irony. After all, it was the Pharaoh who issued the edict to murder all Jewish boys. That their descendents would then adopt the food of their enslavers as a national snack is a little odd, if not downright masochistic.
Falafel is often consumed during Ramadan as part of iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at dusk. While not a traditional Jewish food, it was historically eaten by Mizrahi Jews. The practice of stuffing the falafel balls into pita with lettuce and other veggies did, in fact, begin in Israel. Today, the Lebanese Industrialist’s Association is claiming copyright infringement on the humble sandwich, proposing that the only falafel that can be called falafel must come from Lebanon. That issue has been put on the back burner as of late – due to the recent political unrest and violence, it appears that Middle East nations have much bigger chickpea balls to fry.
The political implications of falafel begs the question: when I eat it, am I supporting the Zionist agenda or am I throwing my hat in with fundamentalist Islam? Or am I spanning a bridge between Middle Eastern nations and religious beliefs? Am I stating that regardless of what we believe in and what we look like and how we choose to live, good food is still good food? That palate-pleasing sustenance transcends spiritual leanings? I would like to think so. I would like to think that we can move beyond conflict, beyond wars, beyond all of the ugliness in the world and recognize that we are, in the end, all human with very similar basic needs: shelter, clothing, food. Is it overly simplistic and trite to think that we can unite through a street sandwich? Yes, it is. But maybe that is how we can recognize and celebrate our similarities – through issues that aren’t as important as who G-d is and how he/she/it wants us to live – but issues that we face multiple times every day – as in “What’s to eat?” For this overly simplistic, trite American, the answer is falafel. Everyday, all day, anytime of day — regardless of the consequences.