To many Americans, Falafel is a fried ball of mashed up garbanzo beans that you can put in a sandwich. But to me, falafel reminds me of where I’m from – Sudan. Until recently, I thought there was really only one way to make it. But it turns out, there are many ways to fry a falafel, depending on where you’re from – and of course, everyone thinks their way is best. So I headed out around the Bay on a falafel shop hop.
I started in the East Bay, in Fremont, where I meet Ramzi Totari, owner of Falafel, etc. He was born in Nazareth, Israel, and his dad owned a Falafel shop there. Totari went to college in this country, worked in the high tech industry for many years, but he returned to his roots with Falafel. “The falafel is part of the tradition in every one of the Middle east countries,” he says. “Every street corner has a Falafel stand on it. They don’t have hamburgers, they have Falafel stands.”
Totari is an Israeli Palestinian, and where he comes from, Jews and Palestinians alike make Falafel with garbanzo beans, like what I’m used to in Sudan. As we look at a batch ready for frying, he points to the yellow color of his falafel mix, which is 95 percent of the mix. Then, he added onion, garlic, parsley, cilantro, cumin, and, just before frying, chef Ramzi adds a bit of baking soda – to fluff up the falafel, he says. And as my mother always told me the oil must be HOT – just like Chef Ramzi’s – so the falafel balls dive like swimmers to the bottom and rise back up again. “If you cook it just right, as soon as you put it in the oil, the outside shell seals and doesn’t allow oil to get into it,” Totari says.
After frying, he drains the oil and gives me one to try. I give it a taste and, he’s right – it’s crunchy on the outside, not oily on the inside. And even though he makes it everyday –Chef Ramzi never tires of falafel.
If an order is six pieces, he says, he’ll make seven. “The 7th one is the taxes,” he says, “Uncle Ramzi has to have his taxes! So I get a Falafel and I just eat it by itself. I love eating it by itself.”
Despite being proud of his Palestinian style, Ramzi Totari admits that Falafel didn’t originate in Palestine or Israel. Experts say it came from Egypt. So, I headed over to an Egyptian sandwich shop in San Francisco Pharaoh’s Mediterranean Sandwich Shop.
In the back kitchen, I meet with the owner’s daughter, Yasmin Elmorsy. The room is stocked with dozens of spices, vegetables, and the smell of cilantro fills the space. Elmorsy is preparing a fresh batch of Falafel mix, and shows me a pail of fava beans, soaking since yesterday. That’s right – fava beans, not not garbanzo. This is the Egyptian way, and most don’t call it falafel, they call it “tamaya.”
Fava beans are a staple food in Egypt that go as far back as the Pharaohs. And paintings inside their tombs, some believe, depict the act of frying falafel. Another theory is that the dish originated with Egypt's Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent. And now, thousands of years later, and thousands of miles away in San Francisco, Yasmin, her father, and four brothers are running a restaurant that offers falafel prepared the same way, based on her late mother’s recipe.
Yasmin’s mother prepared falafel with some of the same ingredients as chef Ramzi Totari uses in his Palestinian recipe: parsley, cilantro, onion – all blended together in the food processor.
And after she makes it as smooth as possible, the spices are hand mixed in: black pepper, sesame, some salt, and the key ingredient, freshly ground coriander. She says with a laugh, "It makes the taste of the falafel. So be generous with the coriander!"
After frying, I try my first fava bean falafel. It’s more like a burger-shape than a ball. As I bite down, I can taste the flavorful coriander and I can taste the difference – this is heavy and dense, and feels more like a meal than an appetizer.
Yasmin says she gets lots of middle eastern people coming in – but her Egyptian customers want to make sure they are getting it their way. There’s a pride in knowing it’s an Egyptian “tameya,” as they call it.
That got me thinking: if falafel originated in Egypt with Fava beans – why are many made with garbanzo, including ours in Sudan which is actually geographically the closest to Egypt? I needed some answers so I called up renowned cookbook author and food historian Claudia Roden, at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, in England.
She says what food you make depends on what crops are available to you. “People use what they grow,” she says, “and because they grow chickpeas in Israel and Palestine, that is the one that they would use.”
That made sense. But then, there’s another way Falafel is made. If you’re say, from Lebanon, you combine the two beans – you go half fava and half garbanzo. That’s how it’s made at Mid East Deli in Fremont. The owner and chef, Madame Leila Sfeir, moved here from Lebanon with her husband and children over 30 years ago. I asked her who makes the best falafel, Palestinians, Egyptians, or Lebanese? She answered, “Me!” laughing.
Madame Leila is 72, with the energy of a 30-year-old. She uses a large commercial grinder to mix her ingredients together – she stands on a crate because she’s not tall enough to put her half and half mixture in – and when it’s done, it looks almost more vegetable-y than beany. I notice the mixture is very green. She says she loves to add lots of parsley and cilantro
Madame Leila fries her falafel until, she says, they are a magic golden color. And then she grabs a large paper thin pita bread wrap, puts three falafels on it, and adds lettuce, tomatoes, and soaks it good with tahini sauce.
As I try her falafel sandwich, I can taste the cilantro and tahini, and I realize that maybe it’s not who makes the best falafel. As food historian Claudia Roden told me, “It’s the way you were brought up eating it – that means everything to you.”
Want to make your own felafel? Try these recipes below.
Ramzi Totari’s recipe- from Palestine/Israel
Makes 150 falafels
3.5 lbs dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight
Run it through a meat grinder adding the following as you grind:
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch parsley
1 medium yellow onion
2 oz fresh garlic
After it is mixed together, add the following to the mixture:
2.5 tablespoons salt
1.5 tablespoons dried cumin powder
1.5 tablespoons hot sauce
1.5 cups water
Mix well, then prepare a deep fryer with canola oil enough to deep fry
Right before frying, add 1 tablespoon baking soda to the mixture
When the oil is at 325 degrees, take a heaping tablespoon of mixture, use a falafel mold to shape it into a ball, and drop it into the oil to fry.
Falafels are ready when they are brown on all sides
Yasmin Elmorsy’s recipe- from Egypt
Makes about 20 falafels
3 cups split fava beans
1 cup fresh parsley and cilantro
Put the fava beans , 1/2 onion, 1 cup parsley and cilantro in the chopper/grinder/food processor until the mixture comes very soft.
But in a bowl, and add seasoning:
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame
1 tablespoon ground coriander
Make little balls, pat them to flatten them slightly, patting coriander on the surface as well. Fry in medium hot vegetable oil until brown.
Leila Sfeir’s recipe from Lebanon
Makes about 20 falafels
2 cups fava beans
2 cups garbanzo beans
soak them overnight
The next day, pour all beans in mixer/food processor, adding the following:
2 bunches of parsley
2 bunch cilantro
4 cloves garlic
1 bunch green onions
Grind together until smooth
Then mix in the following:
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sesame
1 spoon ground cumin
Prepare a wok with canola oil for deep frying
Right before frying, add half a tablespoon spoon baking soda, and 2 tablespoons water to the mix. The mixture should be very green in color.
Use a falafel mold to shape falafels into circles and drop into oil
Fry until golden-green, turning occasionally. Drain oil on rack. Bon appetite!
Hana Baba’s recipe – from Sudan
(makes about 20 servings)
3 cups dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight
1 tbs salt
1 tbs minced garlic
3 tbs chopped Italian parsley
Half a yellow onion, chopped
1 tbs baking soda
Oil for frying
Mix all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. This is the falafel mix.
Prepare deep frying pan with plenty of oil for deep frying
Scoop up a portion of the falafel mix, roll it in your palm into a ball, then flatten slightly by patting the top. Drop it carefully into the oil once the oil is hot.
The falafel is ready when the color turns light brown. Set on plate with paper towels to drain oil, sprinkle a mixture of another half teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of dried ground cumin, and enjoy!