There is much controversy surrounding the history of the humble little falafel. One thing that is certain is that it is now as ubiquitious in New York City as hot dogs or pizza. In fact, the task of finding the best falafel is as ludicrous as searching for the best pizza or best bagel in New York. I must be a crazy man. Or at least a really hungry one.
Falafel is an ancient food (probably the oldest of all the foods I’ve focused on so far), maybe even dating back to biblical times. But ironically, it’s a new addition to the New York food scene. Before 1971 when Mamoun’s opened their doors in Greenwich Village, it would have been rare (perhaps impossible) to find a falafel sandwich in the entire city.
Falafel (for those living under a rock for the last four decades) is a ball or patty of ground up chickpeas. Fava beans might be substituted or mixed-in. Herbs, spices, and vegetables can be included in the mix with anything from mint, and parsley to onion and garlic to cumin and red pepper. The ball is then fried until crisp and then eaten by itself or inside a pocket sandwich (usually pita bread). Toppings, like tahini, hummus, vegetables, and hot sauce also make the experience unique and delicious.
The word falafel might have come from the Arabic “filfil” meaning pepper or the Egyptian “pha la phel” meaning “of many beans.”
Many nationalities and religious groups would argue where the falafel originated. But it is generally believed that it was first eaten about 1000 years ago in Egypt by Christian Copts. They ate fried chickpeas as a substitute for meat during Lent. Other theories suggest falafel first appeared on the subcontinent of India around the 6th Century. And still others claim ancient Jews invented it while slaves in Egypt. Wherever it began, it spread all across the Middle East and just about every country in that region enjoys it today.
Today, it’s considered the national dish of Israel (although Palestinians claim the Israelis stole it from them). It can be found in Syria, Persia, Jordan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the list goes on. It’s kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, nut free. What a versatile little fritter! No wonder everybody wants to claim it as their own.
In the last 40 years, waves of immigrants from the Middle East have come to New York and they’ve brought their food with them, making the falafel one of the city’s most recent iconic dishes. From food carts to meze platters to takeout storefronts with frustratingly long lines, I’m going to get in touch with my inner vegetarian in order to shut up and… Eat This!