Hot and crunchy on the outside, fluffy and herby on the inside; falafel is the fast food world’s vegetarian leader.
It’s not surprising then that so many nations call this mighty fritter their own; Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria all have ties to the ubiquitous snack.
“The Egyptians invented the falafel,” believes Michael Rantissi, chef and co-owner of Sydney’s Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co.
The Oxford Companion to Food agrees with him, writing that the falafel has an “extremely ancient” origin that is most likely somewhere in Egypt.
Growing up in Israel, where he says “there’s a falafel on every street corner”, Rantissi didn’t learn how to make them until he arrived in Australia.
“As kids, we thought that falafel was available all around the world!” he tells SBS.
The chef is such a fan that he’s named a cookbook after them. In Falafel for Breakfast, (get Rantissi’s falafel recipe here) which was co-written with his partner Kristy Frawley, he instructs to start the falafel-making process at least 24 hours in advance because, “It takes time to make a good falafel.”
And if you thought the falafel was exclusively chickpea-based (you’d be forgiven, considering this is how the majority make it, plus the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) – think again.
“I’ve experimented over the years with a lot of different versions and I think that adding split fava beans to the mixture makes a great falafel,” Rantissi says. He prefers to soak the chickpeas and beans overnight.
The Israeli-born chef also favours fresh parsley and coriander over dry herbs to lock in moisture and achieve that coveted airiness in the centre. Garlic and ground spices (cumin prevails, but some chefs also like Cayenne pepper or chilli powder) are also used to impart its signature aromatics.
Both Ottolenghi and Rantissi incorporate a rising agent such as baking soda and a sprinkling of sesame seeds at the end to help the balls stick and give the patties their unabashed crunchy exterior.
“Undoubtedly falafel is Middle Eastern – where exactly is not important; the important thing is they are a genius,” says Louisa Allan, who owns Brunswick’s Very Good Falafel with business partner Shuki Rosenboim.
“It’s all about freshness; very fresh ingredients, freshly ground, and freshly cooked. A good balance of chickpeas, herbs spices and garlic is important too,” Allan adds.
Allan and Rosenboim have been frying falafels at Melbourne’s farmers’ market for years under their business name Shuki and Louisa, with chickpeas that Allan’s dad grows at Wycheproof in the Mallee. Once cooked, they’re loaded into Israeli-style pita with house-made tahini (Rantissi also prefers tahini) and pickles. The result is everything a good falafel should be: crisp on the outside, juicy in the centre, with a good hit of acidity via the pickles.
But there’s a lot to be said for shaping the patties – it’s a pivotal part of the process.
Rantissi suggests using a traditional ‘falafel spoon’ available at Middle Eastern grocers, but says two tablespoons will also do the trick, and so will using your hands as per the Egyptian method.
If you’re opting for the Arabic version, a Lebanese seven-spice powder, featuring ginger, cinnamon and allspice, will give your falafel balance and authenticity.
Whichever way you lean, go slowly – a fresh falafel is a magical thing, and magic can’t be rushed.
Recipe and image credit Falafel for Breakfast (Murdoch Books). Photography by Alan Benson.
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Traditionally deep-fried, this lighter version of the much-loved Middle Eastern falafel is baked. Teamed with a fresh herb and tomato salad and tasty tahini dressing, it makes a deliciously light meal.