When you bite into a crunchy, fluffy, piping-hot falafel, discerning palates can tell where the chef is from. Everything from the size of the balls to how it’s cooked and the spice mix used will let you know where its roots lie.
While Lebanese falafel features a blend of chickpeas and broad beans, and different spices might get used in Syria, Israeli falafel tends to be based only on chickpeas and is flavoured with onion, garlic, cumin and coriander.
“There’s no other legumes in it,” Kalfus says.
“Every region uses different herbs and spices available and even in Israel, there are differences, because Israel is built from Jewish people that came from all over the world and they brought the food they ate in their country.
“I believe the common denominator is that it is full of green herbs, mostly parsley and 99 per cent of the people I know serve it in a pita pocket rather than a flatbread like in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon."
He says that some people might have it with garlic, while others won't. Sometimes falafel is stuffed with hummus, tahini, zhug (Yemeni garlic and coriander-based green hot sauce), or harissa (the North African red hot sauce with chilli, roasted capsicum and preserved lemon). "You also have pickled cabbage, cucumber, either shredded cabbage or lettuce or both, and amba, which is a mango pickle chutney that’s not spicy – I think it came to Israel from the Iraqi Jews in the late '50s.”
On its first weekend, Shuk Falafel made over 50 kilos of the chickpea mix and ran out of pita, so there’s a lot of love for it. But Kalfus can understand why some people might dismiss falafel as just dry, fried balls – they haven’t had a good one yet.
“The ones we made at Shuk are loaded with parsley, they’re very, very green, so they are fresh and bright. We never have them the second day, otherwise they’ll go a bit brown,” he says.
“For a good falafel, you have to load them up with herbs and have a bit of onion in there for moisture. How you cook them and their size is also important.
“Some people bake them, but that’s a recipe for disaster, that’s how you get a dry falafel. You have to deep-fry them so they’re nice and crispy outside, but don’t fry them for too long. Use a timer and set it for three minutes – not a second more. If the falafel is too big, it will not puff up in the middle, the chickpea will stay raw, which is why they have to be the right size," he says. "For us, we found smaller falafel works better, it’s crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside and bursting with flavour.”
Kalfus grew up in Netanya, a coastal town about 30 minutes from Tel Aviv and migrated to Australia when he was 23.
On its first weekend, Shuk Falafel made over 50 kilos of the chickpea mix and ran out of pita, so there’s a lot of love for it.
Food was a big part of his world and he loved going to the markets, not only for the fresh produce but also the small food stalls that specialised in one thing.
“Most of childhood was spent between the beach and eating. You would go to one guy for falafel, one guy to get your dips, one guy that makes the pita,” he says.
“Musa makes the best falafel I ever had, bright green and really fresh. He has a corner shop and has been there for 50 years and now his son is doing that. Then you go to Uzi who makes hummus, the bowl is usually topped with ful, slow-cooked broad beans, and you get that with a hard-boiled egg, pickles, za’atar and laffa, Iraqi flatbread on the side that’s hot fresh out of the oven. You just sit there with your mates on the corner, eating it.
“Malabi is the guy who makes a milk custard similar to panna cotta, it’s a rosewater flavour with a rose or berry syrup on top, decorated with pistachio and coconut. On a hot summer’s day, it’s just wow.”
Seafood was prominent in the coastal town of Netanya, but Kalfus says another major culinary influence was the spices of the North African Jews who came from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.
“The food variety from the Sephardic Jews was amazing, they brought so many flavours. There’s a guy – I'm salivating just thinking about it – who did a Tunisian tuna sandwich you would kill for. It was spiced tuna with harissa, hard-boiled egg and crunchy lettuce in a French baguette.”
Kalfus opened the first Shuk in Bondi in 2013. The name means marketplace in Hebrew and the restaurateur loves sharing his culture.
“It’s so strange that people come to eat the food I grew up with. We make good food at Shuk, but I also feel like Israeli food is a big movement. It’s healthy, vegan-friendly and people like [chef Yotam] Ottolenghi have helped showcase the food. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have at least one Ottolenghi book,” he says.
“People travel to us from all over Sydney [to eat at Shuk's outlets], from the Northern Beaches and Baulkham Hills. It’s humbling.”
The rise of veganism has also helped. Israeli food is a cuisine that is (mostly) unintentionally vegan and uses spices such as paprika, cumin, dried coriander and fennel seeds to make vegetables sing.
“There weren’t many cows or goats back in the day in the Middle East. Eating meat wasn’t a thing, you’d have it once in a blue moon when you slaughtered an animal, otherwise, all they had was legumes and vegetables,” Kalfus says.
“Vegetables taste amazing, I barely eat meat these days. I cook eggplant roasted over an open fire with tahini dressing and pomegranate, with fresh bread on the side to mop it up. Or I’ll grill it and use a Texan spice mix which gives it a smoky, meatier taste."
He says his baby daughter is a fan of broccoli and broccolini, just blanched quickly and dressed in lemon, herb and garlic herbs.
“I love beetroot. In summer, my grandma, who was born in the Soviet Union, used to make cold borscht, a roasted beetroot soup and mix it with a yoghurt sauce. It was like a beetroot gazpacho with the creaminess of yoghurt. We had it with fresh challah bread and I could eat the whole pot.”
Yoni’s grandmother’s borscht soup
“It’s home-style and not measured by grams,” Kalfus says of the recipe his mother passed down to him from her mum.
- 5 medium beetroots
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 chopped dill stems, plus extra dill fronds for garnish
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
- 1 Lebanese cucumber
- Sour cream or Greek yoghurt, to serve
- Fresh challah, to serve
1. Peel and cut the beets in half. In a pot over low heat, add the beetroots, bay leaf and chopped dill stems and cover with water. Simmer until tender but do not overcook, they still need some crunch.
2. Once cooked, remove the beets and cool.
3. Reduce the beetroot stock for a few more minutes and adjust seasoning.
4. Chill the stock in the fridge – this is important. If the stock is stock is still warm, it will continue cooking the beets.
5. Grate the beets into the cold stock, you want to give the soup a thick consistency. Grate the cucumber into the cold soup, it will add freshness and crunch.
6. Serve the borscht in a bowl, topped with a dollop of cream cheese or Greek yoghurt, a sprinkle of dill fronds and fresh challah bread.
A healthy vegetarian bowl of homemade mini falafel, shredded cabbage and carrot salad and dollops of spiced yoghurt, a fresh and wholesome feed.