When falafel is done right—crisped to perfection, warm enough to eat without burning your tongue, and maybe even served with an exotic sauce to maximize its flavor—you just know it. Your average halal cart probably serves a version with varying levels of success (you can usually tell by its queue), but making it at home for yourself? Yeah, we thought you might like to figure that out, which is why we enlisted the experts at ilili an esteemed Lebanese restaurant, and Shoo Shoo, a new Mediterranean joint inspired by Tel Aviv’s bohemian cafe culture.
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Dried beans will always give you the best flavor.
So, what exactly is falafel?
Falafel has two main ingredients: Dried chickpeas and fava beans, though some chefs choose to go either all chickpea or all fava. Depending on regional variations, they may also contain a variety of spices and herbs—coriander, allspice, cumin, onion, garlic, parsley, cilantro, and baking soda.
ilili’s Executive Chef and Owner Philippe Massoud tells us, “It is rumored that falafel originated in Egypt. However, in my humble opinion, the sandwich was perfected in Lebanon. The addition of pickled turnips, fresh mint, and tomato created an amazing balance in the sandwich, brought freshness to every bite and created a lot of hardcore followers and mini addicts. It quickly became, and remains, a staple in the Lebanese street food category.”
There are even gluten-free versions of falafel available today, like the recipe served at Shoo Shoo, which uses oats in addition to ground chickpeas.
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How can you perfect your own falafel?
“We believe that the quality of all the ingredients—freshly grated spices; high quality chickpeas, not from the can, of course; and fresh olive oil—add to the taste and texture of the falafel,” says Shimon Maman, Chef and Co-Owner of Shoo Shoo. “We pass our falafel mixture through the food processor twice, then add the sesame and soda water, mix to combine, form balls, and fry them,” he says.
Massoud recommends that all the ingredients should be ground down well to form an even consistency. Then, it’s all about deep frying one ball at a time. “You need to make sure that the oil is not too hot and that the falafel is not too wet. Otherwise it will not hold its shape and consistency. The falafel, while initially sinking in the oil, should float as it is close to being done. A perfect falafel has a toasted baguette consistency on the outside, and pound cake on the inside,” he says. Maman adds that you should make sure during the frying process to use a quality oil and ensure it stays clean the entire time.
Are there rules as to what I can put in falafel?
In short, no. You can try feta-stuffed falafel. Or how about a Falafel Cauliflower—crispy falafel cauliflower florets, cumin cabbage slaw, umbah, zhoug, tahini, cilantro, and parsley—which is served at fast casual Middle Eastern restaurant Dez in NYC?
Massoud makes an argument for adding curry, crab meat, and different beans when you feel like getting creative. “When it comes to falafel, the sky’s the limit,” he says. One thing that’s not up for debate, however, is a mandatory dipping sauce. “Tahini is the mother of all sauces when it comes to falafel,” he says. “However, you can really go in any direction you are in the mood for: Take your falafel to Mexico and do a green salsa, or go to China and do Szechuan tahini.”
How should you serve your falafel?
Maman serves his falafel with a variety of condiments for people to mix and match to enjoy the dish in different ways. “Everything from homemade tahini, to pickled vegetables and freshly baked pita make the flavors of falafel shine,” he says. Meanwhile, Massoud says, “It is impossible for me to go for a month without a traditional Lebanese falafel sandwich. Sometimes sticking to tradition is best: pita, falafel, fresh parsley, tomato, tahini, pickled turnips all wrapped together…it brings me joy and comfort every time.”
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Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.