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Falafel - where does it come from?

Falafel - where does it come from?
 
Israeli-style falafel Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

Everyone loves the taste of authentic falafel - but where does this delicious dish come from exactly?

That sweet popping sound of boiling oil just before a falafel pops out: balls of bean goodness that have an international following.

Once the fried fritters, made of chickpeas or broad beans come out, they're thrown into fresh pitta bread and dressed with vegetables, and tahina…crushed sesame seed sauce.

Easy to eat, cheap to buy and everyone agrees they are the typical street food of the Middle East.

But ask about the origins and a conflict may as well break out.

“Well, falafel … there’s a little fight over that. There are those who will say it’s Egyptian, others will say its Lebanese and others will say it is Israeli. Whatever it’s from the Middle East,” says Yumi, the manager of a popular falafel stand in Paris.

Perhaps that’s the safest answer.

Lebanese-style falafel Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

But with Paris having an ample Middle Eastern population, I decided the best way to answer this question was to eat my way through the different falafel stands in the city.

It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it.

For simplicity's sake, I've narrowed it down to Israeli, Lebanese and Egyptian falafel.

Before properly answering the question, one has to know that falafel is either chickpea or broad-bean based. Sometimes the two are combined.

Regardless of the preparation, the falafel itself is almost always eaten in a sandwich, generally in a flat type of bread.

Israeli-style in the Marais

In search of the origins of our favourite fritter, I began in one of Paris’s tourist attractions, the Marais neighbourhood.

What used to be a thriving Jewish neighbourhood before World War II, is now a rather gentrified and artsy part of town, complete with small museums and art galleries.

But the rue des Rosiers still upholds the Jewish past of the neighbourhood, with its bakeries, restaurants and falafel stands of the Israeli variety.

As the tourists flock to Paris during the summer months, the pedestrian street is packed with people waiting in line to grab a falafel sandwich from one of the four main restaurants.

I found a few people devouring their falafel and asked them why they came to rue des Rosiers:

Julie, from Paris “For me, it’s the best place for falafel.”

Zanthy, an Australian tourist: “I have had falafels all over the place; this is definitely on the higher scale of falafels.”

Everyone knows how to eat a falafel, but does anyone here know its origins?

Georgia, from the UK admits “I don’t know exactly, you find it in a few different cuisines from different countries.”

One American tourist gives a safe answer stating “It’s Israeli and Arabic; a mix between the two.”

So no one really knows. But then, while scarfing down a falafel, that’s likely the farthest thing from your mind.

Despite the lunchtime rush, the managers from two popular stands find time to discuss the origin of the fritters.

“I’d say it’s Israeli, but maybe Lebanese. Let’s just say Israeli-Lebanese,” says Elon, the manager of King Falafel.

When asked about the different preparations:

“I don’t know another type. Falafel with beans? I didn’t know. See, now you’ve told me that so I’ve learned something!” he exclaims.

“I know Egyptians mix it with beans. It’s called ful mudammas, but Israelis do it with 100 percent chickpeas” explains Yumi, the manager of L’As du Falafel.

Lebanese-style in Bastille

Over in the Bastille area, far from the tourist crowds of the Marais, the streets are lined with French bistros and pockets of Lebanese restaurants. One in particular serves only falafel.

The modern interior of Bar Falafel Bro doesn’t reveal its Lebanese origin. David, originally from Beirut, is one of the owners of the place. When I put the question to him, he smiles and explains diplomatically “Well, if you put the question to a Lebanese, he will say it comes from us. If you ask an Egyptian or a Tunisian or an Israeli they will call claim falafel as their own. But, for me, it remains international; a Mediterranean dish. The meal is very popular - it’s not even a meal, it’s a sandwich. A falafel sandwich is very popular.”

But when it comes to the origin of the word "falafel" David responds honestly, stating “I don’t know exactly where the name falafel comes from. I was born in Beirut and in Beirut it’s really the chance to go to the small businesses and grab a falafel sandwich which is very popular in the working-class neighbourood of Bourj Hammoud.”

As David and Yumi both mentioned, regardless of the origin, the falafel itself becomes appropriated by its country. What's a typically Lebanese falafel?

David explains beginning with the essential sauce, tarator. “That’s the well-known tahina sauce which accompanies the sandwich and the ingredients inside it, like fresh mint, turnip and in addition to that, in Lebabon, we always have a hot pepper on the side. That’s to say a hot pepper accompanies a falafel sandwich; that’s part of the tradition. There’s no sandwich without one.”

Egyptian-style near the Champs Elysées

Over on the other side of town, just a few steps away from the Arc de Triomphe, you’ll find the only Egyptian falafel stand in the city. Nestled on a side street, it’s easily missed if you’re caught up wandering the broad avenues of this neighbourhood.

Egyptian-style falafel Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

Mickael, who was born in France and is of Egyptian Coptic background, is the owner of Micka Falafel.

When asked about the origins of the bean fritter, he quickly launches into an explanation, beginning with the word "falafel" itself:

“Falafel is a word used in the Coptic language that was the national language of Egypt back in the day," he says. "When one talks about falafel, it is about rolling the batter, which is made from broad beans, into balls which are then thrown into oil, creating a crust. It is this crust that is called falafel.”

In certain Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, falafel is also eaten for breakfast.

“If you eat falafel in the morning for breakfast, you need to know a little about where it comes from,” Mickael says when asked how he came by his explanation of the word's origins. That interest took him to his grandfather who can speak Coptic, and transmitted his story about the origins of falafel.

Food for the hundreds

Tamiya is another term for falafel, which is only used in Egypt.

“In Egypt 2,000 years you would find falafel and years after they changed it to tamiya,” explains Mickael. He says it was changed following the Islamic conquest of Egypt, when Arabic became the new language, so efforts were made to Arabise the country. The food falafel remained but, because it is considered a food of the people, it took on the name of ta’miya from tam, meaning taste, and mi'a, meaning 100. So food for the hundreds.

But another school of thought says tamiya is in fact a word rooted in the Coptic language, a successor to the pharaonic language. The term falafel in fact is the plural form of filfil, meaning peppers in Arabic.

So the name itself is highly disputed.

Whatever the origins of the dish and its name, it remains popular.

“A falafel sandwich will always just be a ball of chickpeas and beans,” says David. “The price will never be as high as meat and that’s why it’s always available in the working-class neighbourhoods.”

But chickpeas or beans? Could that be the determining factor in narrowing down the origin?

“When there was a large Jewish community in the country [Egypt], that’s when the difference in the preparation happened," he explains. "We began to see a mix between broad beans and chickpeas, so in Alexandria, in Cairo, in the cosmopolitan cities.

"But in the more conservative cities of the south, so in Minya or Asyut for example, which never really had a significant Jewish population and has remained relatively Coptic, falafel has always been made from broad beans.”

Pharoahs and beans

This idea of falafel coming from Egypt could be correct, given that the Coptic people, thought to be descendants of the ancient Egyptians, still maintain practices from those days. There is evidence of dried broad beans found in pharaonic tombs and at least one book cites pharaonic cooks as making bean fritters using mashed beans, garlic onions and spices; all ingredients native to the country and region.

Given that the Copts engage in many fasts, which forbid any animal products, during the course of a year, eating falafel during these times has always been popular.

And as Islam spread across the country and region during the 600s, falafel also became a favourite of Muslims, especially during Ramadan when it is eaten as an appetiser to break the daily fast.

Regardless of the country, the fact remains that the idea of a falafel spread from one country to another and stayed in the region.

And, as David stresses, “Each country has its own recipe. Maybe some with more chickpeas than chives, or with more spices. Those who add garlic or those who don’t. Each one makes the falafel recipe his own. Even if I were to say I’m 100 percent convinced its Lebanese, it wouldn’t make a difference, but I don’t believe that because, well it’s just very Mediterranean.”

In the end, no one really knows the true origin, though you might be able to come up with your own conclusion. Whether you love your falafel with chickpeas, or with broad beans, or both, it’s still delicious.

And it’s so good it even inspired a song, as sung by comedian Go Remy.


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