Falafel Talk

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A Falafel Confession

Nasri Atallah
Writer, Beirut

I haven’t had a falafel in about 15 years. I shouldn’t really be admitting this publicly, as it’s probably sufficient grounds to have my Lebanese citizenship revoked. I can’t really explain why. Maybe I’m scarred by the Sahyoun dynasty schism and have been seeing falafel as an intrinsically conflict- centric delicacy.

But more realistically, I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with it. I was born and raised among the terraced houses of West London. My Lebanese parents, anxious to settle me into a place where my face and name already made me enough of an outsider, impressed upon me their notions of British cuisine: beans on toast and shepherd’s pie.

Of course there was a plate of mujaddarah here and there, but Lebanese feasts were mainly reserved for Sundays at Al Sultan on Curzon Street. This is where, in four-hour long family-and-friends lunches, I’d gorge myself on hummus and fatayer. I’d forget the English schoolboy I was supposed to be and turned into an eight year old dilettante, participating in conversations about Middle East politics, inhaling the smell flowing around me, and eating far too much.

I loved everything on the table – except the falafel. I hated the four round pieces surrounded by unnecessary parsley and submerged in tarator sauce. Nonetheless, I’d shove my fork into them and they’d disintegrate. Even at that age I knew I wanted more structural integrity from my food.

There’s no real reason why I don’t like falafel, but I think it’s something I needed to confess – something I feel dirty about. I’ve kept it a secret my whole life. I now realise that having no affection for falafel makes me a failed Lebanese and a bad Arab, and in the spirit of personal growth, I’m going to stop writing now and head straight to one of the Sahyoun’s for a sandwich.

Survival in New York

Hisham Fageeh
Comedian, Riyadh

I remember when I first moved to New York City to do my master’s degree, my first meal in Harlem was a falafel sandwich from one of those falafel carts. I remember the weather, and the person who sold it to me – a really nice Egyptian man. He gave it to me at net worth, right? He didn’t make any profit off of me. Allegedly. It was such a great thing, because I was broke as hell and needed to save money.

I felt like I was in this big city, but there was this food that was a connection between old and new, between discovering and recognising how to survive in this new neighbourhood that I had moved to.

It’s so ridiculously cheap for the standard. When I first moved to the United States in 2002, you couldn’t get a falafel sandwich for less than seven or eight dollars, and now they’re selling it off a cart right around the corner from my apartment building – for, like, two to three dollars.

I’m about to go visit New York now, but I’m based in Riyadh. What’s the best falafel in Riyadh? I know that the answer’s probably some old Palestinian woman in some obscure neighbourhood, but if you’re buying it, go to either Hashem – a Jordanian franchise in the Sulaymaniyah district – or Mama Noura, a very famous Riyadh restaurant.

After I moved back to Saudi Arabia from New York, there weren’t many choices for me as a vegetarian. So, I was like, ‘Ok, I guess I should eat falafel.’ And I vegged myself out – now I’m like, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’

The Egyptian Way

Lubna Ben Halim
Baker, Tripoli

My mom’s sister, who had lived in Egypt, used to make ta’miyeh. So I had my first taste at our house when she came to visit us here in Tripoli. I remember wondering why it was so green because I was used to seeing it white or yellow. I asked my mom, ‘Why are we eating ta’miyeh that’s so green?’ She replied, ‘There are many ways to make it – the Egyptian way, the Syrian way, the Lebanese way. This is the Egyptian one.’ I decided from then on I only wanted the green kind. My aunt taught me how to make it, which she learned when she moved to Egypt. It was the basic, easy way – nothing special. I’m talking about the old way, which comes with pickles, mayonnaise, ketchup and fries. Nothing new.

To be honest, I don’t like falafel that’s homemade – I prefer it street-made. Falafel has to be dirty. It’s not something you make at home – it’s something you eat on the street. And, it’s just not worth making – it takes a long time, and they all get eaten in five minutes. All of a sudden they’re gone. I love it, myself. I’d eat falafel every day if I could.

Here, you can find falafel everywhere – it fulfills your hunger and you never have to pay much for it. Personally, I like it as a sandwich, with pickles and tahini. And in Tripoli, the falafel is made mostly by Egyptians, but the Libyans don’t make it the Egyptian way, and I’m not sure why.

My Mother, My Aunt and Us Children

Dr. Hisham Ashkouri
Architect, Boston

Falafel, with its special taste and smell that would fill my home in Baghdad, is to this day attached to memories that link me to my childhood and my mother. She was a teacher with a daily five-hour schedule, and after work she would come home and prepare our meals. My mother was alone – my father passed away when I was about one year old, and I had two sisters and three brothers. I was the youngest, and we also lived with my father’s sister, who worked as a seamstress.

When I was a little boy, I was always following my mother around, and when she cooked falafel, she would give me a piece. She used to fry falafel every once in a while – maybe about once every two or three weeks — and it was part and parcel of our diet. She also prepared what she called sharayeh (another form of falafel) and served falafel mostly with leben, salad and khubuz, a flat bread we used to buy from the neighbouring bakery.

We were kids, and we just loved being with her. It wasn’t just that we wanted to taste the food as it came from the pan, but it was the whole ritual of being all together, enjoying the time and the meal. That was the nature of the interaction between my mother, my aunt and us children. The smell, the taste and the heat of the falafel and khubuz are all part of the memory that we have in our hearts to this day. We’ll always remember our mother who provided the family with nourishment and spirit.

The Falafel Guy

Sami Tamimi
Chef, London

I’ve made falafel as an adult, but never as a kid. You didn’t need to. It would have been like making your own baklava or knafeh – things people didn’t attempt to do, like Iranians with their kebabs. They don’t make them at home because they know they can find better kebabs at a restaurant.

As a child, I was in charge of going to the hummus guy, who was next to the falafel guy, and we always had falafel as a snack. I got into trouble a lot with my mum because after school I would always go get falafel and it was messy to eat in my school clothes. And then, actually, I would get in double trouble because she had cooked lunch and I wouldn’t be hungry anymore.

Competition over the best falafel is quite tangible in the Old City of Jerusalem, but the customers all have their own favourites. The vendors compete with each other, and do anything to get your attention so you buy their falafel.

In the Old City, I don’t know where to go anymore for falafel. I’ve lived out of the country for so long now that I don’t really know who’s the best anymore. Restaurants in London don’t really sell good falafel, but there’s one Palestinian guy in Shepherd’s Bush Market. He doesn’t have an official name, I don’t think. It’s just ‘Palestinian falafel’, but I keep going back

Mr Ahmet’s Falafel

Norya Nemiche
Fashion Designer, Marrakech

The cuisine – or the delicacies – of a country are not generally things that I tend to remember about my travels, but it has happened to me twice. The first time was during a trip to Bahia, Brazil, where I had the best sushi of my life. The second time was in Istanbul in June 2012, with Mr Ahmet’s falafel.

Ahmet welcomed us at his falafel joint every day with his great big smile and great big moustache. He had a small snack bar in the Old Town that had been in his family for generations and he still works there with his wife and son. It’s a little shop, but it’s always full of people.

I think I ate falafel every day during that last trip to Istanbul, and I can still remember the taste. They were, for me, the best falafel in the world: crispy falafel balls served with a white, garlicky tahini sauce (spicy or not spicy depending on your preference) and tucked into sandwiches that were very colourful and crunchy. They were so tasty!

To my great surprise, I haven’t had a single bite of falafel since I’ve been back in Marrakech. God knows why – it’s not like I’m not spoiled for choice.

These essays appear in Brownbook’s July/August 2015 issue.

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