We all know falafel as the chickpea fritter stuffed into our lunchtime wraps, baguettes and buffet platters. But how did it evolve from an ancient, street food to such a popular food around the world, and what makes it so well loved?
Just what is falafel?
Falafel is a small, ball-shaped snack made by mixing crushed chickpeas with onions and garlic, and spices such as ground coriander and cumin. The mixture is rolled into a ball, usually about the same size as a golf ball, or smaller — before being dredged in flour and briefly deep fried. Falafel are usually eaten hot, stuffed into warmed pitta breads with salad, houmous and other dressings. Its origins and the first exports
The origins of this chickpea-based snack are controversial. Some claim that it was originally made in Egypt using fava beans, a large, flat green bean grown in Asia and Africa. It’s thought that these little “falafel” snacks were then exported from the port of Alexandria and caught on around Lebanon — where they started to use chickpeas instead of the beans — and later migrated south.
The 20th century: falafel reaches the West
Up until the 20th century, falafel seems to have been a local cuisine only to the Middle East. But from the early 1900s as a result of the two world wars, immigration and the growing ease of travel there was an increase of Middle Eastern communities settling into Europe and the United States. Inevitably, these settlers brought with them their favourite foods from home and Middle Eastern street food soon hit the consciousness of curious diners in the West. Falafel, alongside stuffed vine leaves, houmous and flatbreads started to appear in supermarkets and was widely served in Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Fast food companies catch on
Even the fast food chains didn’t miss out on the falafel craze. Subway launched a falafel-based sandwich in 2010, in its Illinois and Chicago stores. Dedicated falafel restaurants soon sprang up elsewhere around the world, in places such as Amsterdam, Belgium, and in the UK. Canadians at Falafel King in Vancouver could feast on falafel sandwiches, salads and falafel platters. Lunch stops, including Pret A Manger, also followed suit with falafel sandwiches and Middle Eastern street food trucks popped up in towns and cities all across the globe.
So why has falafel been such a success?
The success of this delicately-spiced little fritter is mostly down to the fact that it is both simple to cook and easy to eat. After being deep fried, breads and wraps are filled with hot falafel, crisp salad, pickles and sauces — it’s perfect street food. Falafel is also nutritious and filling and appeals to vegetarians and vegans as well as meat eaters. Chickpeas are cheap, and are a good source of protein, iron and fibre. And because they are so substantial, they help you stay fuller for longer. But whether it can compete against the world’s love of curry is another thing. Falafel does have a similar flavour, though, down to the heady ground cumin and coriander in the mixture. — Agencies