by Charukesi Ramadurai
"Yeh kya pakode hain?" my fellow journalist crinkles her nose, looking around for tomato sauce. We are at the Falafel House in Istanbul, a bunch of writers from India on a work visit to Turkey. Our destination carefully chosen by our guide to cater to the vegetarians in the group, but some of us are hard to please. But then again, this is a woman who also dismissed hummus as tasteless and the glorious Hagia Sophia boring. Note to self: anyone bored by Turkey's equivalent of the Taj Mahal is unlikely to appreciate the gastronomic delights of the falafel.
Yeah, so, back to those 'pakodas.' The word 'falafel' traditionally refers to the crisp fried but soft inside chickpea fritters (please, anything but a pakoda). But the term now has also come to refer to the pita bread sandwich in which it is served most often. A sandwich that is a work of art in itself: falafel balls, creamy hummus, salted fresh and grilled veggies, tahini, mint sauce… all stuffed into a pita pocket that oozes rapturous goodness with every bite.
The falafel is believed to have originated in Egypt – where they make the fritter with fava beans – and rapidly made its way along the Middle East. At some point, Israel appropriated it as their national dish. Palestine protested. And the rest, as they say, is history.
That the Israelis even have a song titled 'And We Have Falafel,'' and declare it "the national snack of Israel" on all tourism brochures hasn't done much for international peace. The Palestinian reaction is perhaps best exemplified by Aziz Shihab, a cookbook author, who is so irate at this "theft" that he once yelled at Israeli restaurant owners in Dallas: "This is my mother's food. This is my grandfather's food. What do you mean you're serving it as your food?''
Oh, the irony then that the best falafel I've ever eaten was nowhere close to the Middle East, but in …. Paris.
Tucked away in a narrow lane (Rue des Rosiers) in the hip Marais area in Paris are two tiny falafel joints that compete for business every day. It's eleven am in the morning, and nowhere close to lunch-time, when the crowds start to gather. Waiters stand out on the street, entertaining themselves by calling out to passers-by and trading insults.
“Fine, go taste it for yourself” says the waiter from L’As Du Fafafel when I dare to inquire about his rival. L'As is widely acknowledged by local food bloggers as the best falafel joint in Paris, but given my affection for the underdog, I first head to Mi-Va-Mi just across the road. I have no idea what it means but with that lilting rhythmic name - who can resist?
“Hmm mmm, the best in the world,” avers Mi-Va-Mi’s smiling chef as he leads me by the hand inside his shop. Over the next fifteen minutes, husband and I proceed to stuff our faces (literally so, given the size of a fully loaded falafel sandwich). And then do it all over again – in the interest of research -- at L’As.
My verdict? The underdog deserves better press. The falafel at Mi-Va-Mi has just that extra hint of tanginess that makes all the difference - and loads of grilled eggplant which appealed to the baingan-loving Telugu man that my husband is (really, what is it about baingan that can evoke such delight?) When it comes to ambience, however, it is L’As du Falafel all the way. The place is buzzing with the voices of young people. The catchy music in the background and bright posters on the wall add to that feeling of instant warmth. Even before I enter the restaurant, I am swept of my feet a waiter serenades us out on the street with a breezy song of unknown language. He later unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black T-shirt which reads ‘I (heart) L’As du Falafel’.
Both places have seating inside but the right thing way to eat a falafel in Paris is so: take it to go; walk to a cool, open space - a green bench by the Seine under the mellow spring sunshine was our choice - and dig in (ignoring the raised eyebrows of passersby as you lick that tahini from your chin. As any self-respecting mangophile will attest, messy is directly proportional to tasty). Then walk to the nearest bakery for dessert. in Paris, your best bet is the Berthillon ice-cream parlour on I’le Saint-Louis which sells – but of course -- "the best ice-cream in the world."
The Parisian falafel is perfectly tailored to my Indian sensibilities – it comes cheap at six euros, feeds my starving vegetarian self and is sold by incredibly friendly immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia. After three days of braving surly waiters in Paris, a warm, easy smile comes as welcome relief.
Besides, no Indian can resist sinful fried stuff. Want it spicy? Just go full tilt on the dressing. It's only fitting that the word falafel is said to have originated from the Arabic word ‘filfil’, which in turn may be a variation on the Sanskrit word ‘pippali’, meaning pepper.
But what is it about these fried balls of dough that makes even die-hard carnivores nod in approval? Parisian bloggers wax eloquent – flawless, crunchy, velvety, creamy, crisp, juicy – when it comes to the falafel. And it is not just the French. Which is the most-loved street food all the way across in the USA? Not the hot dog, but the unassuming falafel which won both the people’s choice and judges’ choice awards at the Vendy’s last year, the ultimate award for street food.
If you're looking for a quick falafel binge closer to home, the best ones are available at the Falafel Veg Hummus House in Mumbai (various locations), Ta’am Falafel Restaurant in Bangalore (Koramangala) and Alaturka Doner Kebab and Falafel in Delhi (Select City Walk mall).
For aspiring chefs, here's my favourite recipe from none other than India's most beloved supercook, Sanjeev Kapoor.
Easy Falafel Recipe
Preparation Time : 6-8 hours
Cooking Time : 30 minutes
Servings : 4
Chickpeas (kabuli chana) 250 grams
Fresh parsley a few sprigs
Fresh coriander leaves a few sprigs
Spring onion bulb 4-5
Garlic 1 clove
Bread 5 slices
Soda bicarbonate a small pinch
Cumin powder 1/2 teaspoon
Salt to taste
Black pepper powder to taste
Paprika powder 1/2 teaspoon
Oil to deep fry
1) Wash and soak the chickpeas overnight. Drain and dry on a kitchen towel.
2) Clean, wash and chop coriander leaves and parsley. Wash and chop spring onion greens. Peel, wash and chop garlic.
3) Grind the chickpeas along with coriander leaves, parsley, spring onion greens, garlic, crumbed bread slices in a food processor to a slightly dry and grainy puree.
4) Add a small pinch of soda bicarbonate, cumin powder and mix well. Season with salt, pepper powder and paprika.
5) Knead the mixture well and allow it to rest for a couple of hours.
6) Take a portion of this mixture, place it on a greased tray and flatten it slightly with fingers. Heat oil in a frying pan and deep-fry the falafels till golden brown. Drain onto a kitchen towel and serve hot.
Updated Date: May 11, 2012 18:17 PM