It has been a frequent complaint when we go out to eat at Middle Eastern restaurants: “they just don’t make falafel like they do back in Egypt.” We have tried countless places, and although it still may taste good, it doesn’t ever taste the same. Oh, how I miss my Egyptian falafel. The memory of waking up in our Alexandria vacation home and finding my cheery grandfather walk into the dining room with some hot and fresh falafels wrapped in a greasy newspaper, along with some hot-out-of-the-oven pita bread is one of my best childhood memories. I can almost smell it.
Here, in the U.S., it is easy to find falafel everywhere. It is even in our local grocery stores. Falafel is such a loved favorite by all because it is a healthy, flavorful, vegetarian and vegan protein based dish. In metro-Detroit where I grew up, and in Chicago where I currently reside, it is even easier to find a wide variety of falafel dishes in endless cafes, restaurants, and diners. But why can’t I still enjoy that same nostalgic scent and flavor of falafels in Alexandria?
I finally figured out what is different. The falafel so well known here is that which hails from the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) and it is primarily made with chickpeas. Now don’t get me wrong, these chickpea based falafel recipes are still delicious with all their variations and spices from each chef. But that is why it always tasted so different to us.
Egyptian falafel is not made with chickpeas, it is made with fava beans! Ah hah! Here is the key difference and why it has never tasted the same to me. We also load it up with greens for flavor such as cilantro, parsley, and leeks. So there you have it; it wasn’t a special oil, a pan, or even certain contaminants from the Egyptian cooking environment as we have often joked :D. The Egyptian falafel is greener, crispier, and flakier. In Cairo they call it T’aamiya, but if you are in Alexandria they still call it falafel. My dad and his family is from Cairo, and my mother’s side is from Alexandria so we use both names, interchangably. That is the beauty of blending cultures; you have a richer experience and vocabulary 🙂 And this here, is the best falafel recipe out there, demystified.
To make falafel, we do not use the brown fava beans as used in my ful mudammas recipe. Instead, you need peeled, large fava beans. These are sometimes labeled habas beans. I was lucky to find some in the bulk section at Whole Foods. Bob’s Red Mill also sells the correct larger, peeled bean. They should look like this:
The beans need to soak in water for at least half a day, preferably overnight. The beans do not get cooked soft, but only pulsed in a food processor before frying or baking. So the soaking is very important. The soaking also helps remove some of the unwanted by-product in the beans that our bodies do not digest well and may cause bloating. So, step 1: soak the beans!
The greens used in the recipe give this falafel a really fresh and flavorful bite. It is crispier and lighter than the chickpea variation. Because there is a lot of liquid from the onion and fresh herbs, you need some type of flour to bind the falafel together. I love using garbanzo bean flour, which is really just ground chickpeas. The flavors combine perfectly, and keeps the recipe gluten-free. You can also find ground chickpea flour from Bob’s. Some chopped white onion, cilantro (with stems), parsley, and leek go into this falafel dough for a fresh and green patty. It is fine to add the cilantro and parsley leaves along with garlic into the food processor with the beans, but it is better to finely chop the onion and leek so that the mixture does not get too much water.
When blending the ingredients slowly pulse the beans until they are like a grainy texture, with no large chunks. Be careful not to puree it into a paste. It won’t hold together into a patty if you do. Once everything is blended, you may begin to combine all ingredients for the dough. Add the spices: cumin, coriander, paprika, salt and pepper. Cayenne is a great addition if you want some kick, but I keep the heat down for my kids.
Once all the ingredients are combined (except for the baking soda), you may either pack away the falafel “dough” into freezer bags for later use, or if you are ready to fry them, prepare for shaping the patties.
When the falafel will be shaped into patties to fry, you need to add 1 tsp of baking soda per 1 cup of dough. Use about 2 teaspoons of dough to roll into a ball and then flatten into a patty. Roll in sesame on both sides and set onto a plate until ready to fry. I fry mine in a combination of sunflower, grapeseed, and olive oil, but you could use any frying oil you like.
It is basically compulsory to eat falafel with tahini. The sauce smothers the falafel with the right amount of juicy zest, and makes any sandwich better. Tahini to falafel is like ketchup to potato fries. My cilantro tahini is perfect for falafel. Simply whisk the lime juice into the tahini. Add the minced garlic and cilantro, and whisk in the water until the tahini is the desired consistency. For some reason blending the tahini makes it get hard. So only use a whisk. Drizzle over your falafel sandwich, or simply dip the falafels in and enjoy. :p
- 3 cups habas beans (peeled and soaked overnight)
- 1/2 white onion, finely chopped (1.5 cups)
- 1 bunch of cilantro leaves and stems
- 1 bunch of parsley leaves
- 4 large cloves of garlic (or more to taste)
- 1 leek
- 2 tsp salt (more to taste)
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp cumin
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional)
- 1.5 cups chickpea flour
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 1/2 tsp of baking soda (for frying only)
- 3 cups of sunflower or canola oil (or any oil you prefer for frying)
- sumac for garnish
- pita bread to serve
- 1/2 tahini paste
- 1/4 c lime juice
- 1/4 c water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp minced cilantro
- After soaking overnight, rinse the fava/habas beans with cold water and drain well.
- Thoroughly wash the parsley and cilantro. Remove the parsley leaves from the stems, and discard the stems.
- Trim off the bottoms of the cilantro stems and discard, but keep the tops of the stems near the leaves.
- In a food processor, combine the beans with the parsley, cilantro, and garlic cloves.
- Peel the outer leaves of the leek and wash well. Roughly chop the leek and add to the bean mixture. Pulse in a food processor until the bean and herb mixture is grainy like sand. You will likely need to pulse in a few batches to fit it all, so that you do not process parts of the beans too much. Be careful not to puree to a paste.
- Stir in the spices and chopped onions.
- Slowly stir in the chickpea flour so that you have a moldable dough with no excess water. If it is too watery, add more chickpea flour.
- Separate the dough into baggies to refrigerate or freeze for later, or you may fry it all at once to yield several dozens.
- Only use the baking soda right before cooking the dough, not for storage. Stir in 1/2 tsp of baking soda for every cup of falafel dough you will cook. Roll into balls, then flatten lightly. Roll the patty in a plate of sesame seeds and set aside on a platter until ready to fry.
- Heat the oil in a medium pot on medium-high heat. The oil is ready when you drop a crumb of dough into it, and it sizzles and turns golden quickly. Once hot, turn the heat down to medium and place about 6-8 falafels into the pot and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove and set onto a towel to drain. Serve hot and eat immediately!
- Stir all ingredients together in a bowl.
- Dip the falafels in tahini and enjoy! Bil hana wil shifaa!
- Like potato fries, falafel tastes best served immediately. It is best to only fry a small amount that will be consumed immediately, and store the rest in the fridge or freezer. Store in the fridge for 3 days maximum.
- When using a frozen bag of falafel dough, allow it to thaw at room temperature for about 1 hour.
- Serve the falafel with the tahini sauce, sliced tomatoes, green onions, and cucumbers, and of course, with some pita bread.
- Bil Hana!