Many falafel recipes will tell you that you can use canned chick peas in a pinch. And you can. However, the results are not always pleasing. Canned chick peas usually result in a falafel that is too soft and tends to fall apart. When I say soft, I don’t mean fluffy. That is a good thing in a falafel. I mean mushy, which is a bad thing. What’s the problem here?
The answer is so very simple. Using canned chickpeas is similar to the mistake some cooks make when they soak and then boil the chickpeas for 2 or 3 hours. For good falafel, you never boil the dried chickpeas. You soak them for 8 hours or overnight in cold water, simply to soften them enough to grind them. Falafel is, by definition, a deep-fried croquette of ground, raw chickpeas or fava beans. The chickpeas must be somewhat dry so as to get the right crunchy texture and to have them hold together. Over-hydrated chickpeas will not hold together in the fryer, unless you add eggs, and even then they may still give you trouble. Boiling your chickpeas before you make the falafel will over-hydrate them, and canned chickpeas are already cooked and over-hydrated.
The deep frying of the falafel balls (or fritters, if you prefer) is what cooks the chick peas. Canned peas are like using cooked chickpeas, except worse, because they have way too much moisture; even more than if you had cooked your soaked beans. If you just have to make falafel, like right now, and all you have is canned chick peas, by all means, don’t let me stop you. But if you want it to turn out it’s best, it is really no trouble to plan ahead and throw some beans into cold water to soak. When you grind or process the beans, it should be more like a fine and crumbly mixture rather than a paste. It is more like you are making a moist flour from the beans. You can also make falafel with fava beans, which is how it was originally made; or from both chick peas and fava beans.
Meat Grinder or Food Processor?
It’s strange that falafel in the Middle East is street food, which is basically fast food. Heck, in Egypt and Israel, McDonald’s sells a falafel sandwhich (can’t be very good but who knows?) For something served up on a street corner, it can seem exceedingly difficult to get right at home. Every little thing seems to affect the outcome at least a little bit.
If you believe that its as difficult as I just made it seem, you’ve been reading too many food blogs written by oh-so-precious foodies. It just so happens that many cooks have been given a bum steer. See, falafel really is a simple street food. It is not such a daunting thing at all. If we look at Isreal we can understand how. Falafel, in Israel of the 1950’s and 60’s, was the equivalent of a fast food stop for today. Going to the falafel stand was a regular thing for many families; a quick and nourishing meal. Later on, in the 70’s and 80’s, although falafel never died, it sort of had a “fall from glory” and was swallowed by other fast foods, like hamburgers and shawarmas (yum). Then comes McDonald’s in the 90’s. One thing that McDonald’s tends to do to a society’s food culture is to introduce the idea of standardization and commodification. So, McDonalds kind of helped bring falafel back. Problem was, it brought it back in the form of Falafel fast food chains…standardized and served up in air conditioned buildings out of nice dainty bags. Next to a falafel stand on the street corner, with a bunch of cars whizzing by spraying fumes everywhere…you get the idea. It helps people grow to expect falafel to be this one certain thing which has to be just right, much like a McDonald’s Hamburger has to be the same every time. There is certainly a concept of falafel “purity” in some parts of Israel, but each cook has his or her own idea of what that means.
In case you’re wondering, the falafel sandwich at McDonald’s in Israel is called the McFalafel. You guessed already, I know! They also have a kabob sandwich modeled on the Israeli kabobs, made with ground meat, that are another popular street food.
As I have been adding to this post for a couple of days, I was surprised when I turned on the TV to find McDonald’s in Israel being profiled in the Travel Channel show, Fast Foods Gone Global. In fact, I have this program paused while writing this bit. It shows happy customers at a McDonald’s saying how good the food is. Most of them are talking about the hamburgers. As you could have guessed, that is what most of the customers are eating, although they did manage to get one lady to say how ‘warm and nice’ the falafel was.
What struck me was that the hamburgers in the Israel McDonald’s looked to be a damn site better than American McDonald’s hamburgers. Since they are Kosher (everybody wants kosher in Israel apparently, even non-religious folk), the cooking must be different, because the meat is presalted. Therefore in Israel it is placed on a flame broiling conveyer belt, more like Burger King. They have a Big Texas burger that is bigger than anything in the American McDonald’s and in general, it all looks better. As far as the hamburgers go, and makes me wish I could have an Israel McDonald’s burger instead of what we get here.
On the other hand, seeing the camera flash on the kabob sandwich and then on a street vendor grilling kabobs makes me wish I could buy a kabob from the street vendor. Go figure. By the way, Coca Cola is also very big in Israel and they sell different products there as well. They have a lightly carbonated beverage called Kinley which is flavored with pomegranate and blueberry.
Anyway, before all this fast food stuff each Falafel King, as they were called, would have taken a great deal of pride in the unique taste of his falafel recipe, having been passed down through generations. This was authenticity. While the “new” falafel, in many cases, could be seen as higher quality (cleaner, for example), when it comes to the free market, quality doesn’t always mean most authentic.
At the same time, there came a new and improved “gourmet” movement for falafel, with new versions and flavors. Couple all this with the need of the Western foodie to take simple food from around the world and turn it into a daunting gourmet trial…and I think you get the picture. What does all this mean? Well, it means that what many of us think represents “authentic” falafel is actually commodified falafel, which is the falafel equivalent of the Big Mac. The kind of falafel you get from a falafel mix should not be expected to be the definition of falafel any more that a fast food hamburger should be expected to define the hamburger. The older falafel would not have been expected to be so perfectly ordinary, so to speak, and therefore, it was truly authentic. The best way to make good falafel is to make your best falafel.
So, the moral is you don’t need a meat grinder and who has one these days? If you do, then use it to grind your soaked chick peas. If you have a really nice stand mixer, it may have come with a meat grinder. Perhaps the attachment is hidden somewhere in the back of a cabinet. A grinder will give the best texture. If not, you can grind them using the chopper blade of a food processor. That is, if you think a chopper blade can actually grind anything. If you’re like me, you call that chopping. Grinding and chopping are not the same thing and the resulting textures do differ. Is it worth buying a meat grinder for? Of course not. Either way, you can still make some excellent falafel.
Forming the falafel dough into balls by hand is a pain. It sticks to your hands as you’re trying to roll the balls into shape and by the time you do get a ball together you’ve mashed it into such a dense little package that you may not end up with fluffy falafel. Plus, it is difficult to produce patties or balls of uniform size.
A solution is to get a falafel mold. You can get a good one for between 8 and 12 bucks. If you make a lot of falafel, I’d say it’s worth it. You could probably also use it to mold other things, maybe even meatballs. Try Hashems or Kamal’s. Both shipped from America. These allow you to get the same amount every time and to mold a perfect croqutte without overly condensing it.
Another method is the two-spoon method, which is exactly like the French method of forming an oval shape called a quenelle, using two small spoons. The basic method is to scoop out some of the mixture with one spoon and invert the other spoon over the top of the mound and use it to smooth the mound into an oval shape. Then, you carefully slide the top spoon under the quenelle and slide it into the frying oil. Or, you can use your hands.
The video below, by Dede’s Mediterranean Kitchen, shows both methods, a falafel mold and the two spoon method. Using that method, you can get surprisingly consistent falafel, and it is not very difficult at all. The only thing I would recommend is to work the shape by gently smoothing the mound of falafel mix on one spoon and then gently slide the other spoon underneath the mound to transfer it, then gently finish shaping it with the now empty spoon. This way, the transferring action itself will help to shape the quenelles, instead of just pressing away at the mound, which can make the patty too dense.
Anyway, she does a great job of demonstrating a falafel! Keep in mind that her recipe uses tons of fresh cilantro, which I love. However, if you are one of those persons who hates cilantro, there is no rule that you must use it. Also, lots of fresh herb will tend to over-power the chick pea taste. A good alternative is to use parsley, curly leaf for a milder and sweeter taste and Italian parsley for a slightly sharper taste.
Alternatively, you can use a little ground coriander seed instead of the fresh cilantro. Or, you can make up your own recipe, putting in all sorts of flavors. Cumin is usually used in falafel, and cumin is also used in Mexican cuisine a lot, so why not a Mexican inspired falafel with some chiles included? Before you watch, I want to quibble about one thing that Dede says in the video. The word falafel does not mean literally mean fluffy. It comes from an Arabic word meaning hot pepper and an adjective referring to something fluffy: filfil.
One thing I would not recommend is loading the falafel with lots of turmeric, which will give it a muddy, musty taste. A bit of turmeric is great for color, but if you use it, be sparing. For some reason, many people seem to think you have to load anything Middle Eastern with turmeric, and it is an absolutely overwhelming flavor. As you will see in the video, there is none in Dede’s batch.
Another thing that will keep your falafel held together, beside flour, is a bit of sesame tahini in the mix (see also Can You Make Homemade Tahini?). Tahini is used to make a classic accompanying sauce but you can use it in the mix as well. It gives a bit of nutty flavor but too much will make it bitter. Also, the tahini will make for a denser falafel. Another tradition that you might find in some parts of the Middle East, but not in Israel, is to dip the falafel balls in sesame seeds before frying them.
However, all of this is an adornment to the basic falafel base. Before finishing up, I want to relate the basics of a pure, unadulterated falafel, like you might find in those parts of Isreal where they appreciate what they might consider the real thing. The basic ingredients are something like:
- chick Peas soaked overnight (say about 3 cups)
- powdered cumin
- powdered coriander seed
- cayenne pepper
- oil for deep frying, 375°F
That’s it. You would grind the chick peas in a meat grinder and then mix the grind with the ingredients; or you would place everything in a food processor and “grind” it all together. Then you’d shape the mixture into croquettes and fry.
This is not to say there are not very trendy and fancy falafels to be found in the country as well, and it is certainly not to pretend that Israel is the origin of falafel, as nobody seems to know and many different places proclaim to be the its homeland. Egypt is often brought up as the origin, but so is the Indian subcontinent and Yemen and/or the Levant in general. The question becomes, however, not where legumes began to be deep-fried as fritters, but where the term falafel originated, which is not really the question at all. In Israel, by the way, the term tends to refer to the fritters stuffed into Arab flat bread and served with cucumbers, tomatoes, tahini sauce, etc., whereas in other places the term refers to the fritters themselves, which are not always eaten as a sandwich. Regardless, falafel is big in Israel. It is, after all, the national dish.
Ideally, your falafel croquettes should be very crisp on the outside and airy and moist on the inside. This is one reason why you must serve them immediately if you want them to be their best, as they will dry out on the inside quickly. Obviously you can’t always serve a big family and expect all the falafel to be eaten right out of the fryer, but the quicker the better. Another problem is having them lose their crispiness and go soft. You can help avoid this by draining your croquettes on a wire rack set on a baking pan, instead of on paper towels. In my humble opinion, paper towels suck for draining fried foods. They absorb the oil until saturated, so that you end up with you food sitting on oil saturated paper, causing it to go soft and limp.
My basic recipe is below. I would recommend that you compare and contrast and experiment with the seasonings, etc. However, this one should give you good results. I like to use less of the dried spices and more fresh herb. I think it gives a cleaner flavor. Too much cumin can be overpowering and it is one of those spices that people tend to be too heavy-handed with, in my opinion. Coriander seed gives a nice lemony overtone to any dish, but don’t over do this one either. To soak the two cups of dried chick peas, use about 4 cups of cold water and soak overnight. You can get tahini (sesame paste) at most large chain grocery stores.
The typical “toppings” used in most recipes are cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet red peppers,and onions. These toppings are similar to the everyday ‘Israeli Salad,’ which is the traditional topping for a Falafel (sandwich) in Israel. Although most American restaurants serve up huge chunks of the stuff, Israeli’s would never eat it this way. They prefer it all chopped up into small cubes and mixed together into a salad, which I think you will find is far preferable, since the flavors blend together much better. The Israeli way of dicing everything fine and very neatly is called dak-dek for very fine or Katan-katan for very small.
There is nothing particularly Israeli about the salad as it is a typical Middle Eastern type salad and is, in fact, sometimes called an Arab Salad. But in Israel, you just don’t have a meal without a salad of some kind, and this is the typical one. So that is why it’s called an Israeli Salad: it is ubiquitous to Israel and even the McDonald’s chain, mentioned above, had to serve up the vegetables this way because that is the only way Israeli customers would except the toppings. I include a recipe for the “salad” as well, l as lemon tahini sauce. I also include an easy yogurt sauce, which I prefer.
Keep in mind that these are the more traditional types of accompaniments, but this does not mean that there are not all kinds of other things that certain trendy establishments might offer in Israel. Pickles, coleslaw or other cabbage salad, eggplant dip, hot sauce, etc. might be found. Also, most falafel stands also sell french fries, and many customers put the French fries right into their sandwiches. I remember a stand in Turkey that sold wonderful lamb sandwiches called Döners. This particular vendor served them in thick bread that was more like French bread, but they are typically served in pocket breads or tortilla-like wraps. He also served French fries and us Americans began putting the French fries (which were awesome), into our sandwiches. The vendor thought this was a strange but wonderful idea and began offering this to his regular customers. Now you can find french fries in Döners all over Turkey. Okay, I’m lying. Not about the French fries or about the vendor offering the variation to his customers, but the other part…Anyway, there is a version of this sandwich in every Middle Eastern country in the world, which includes the familiar shawarma which I had in both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and could never get enough. Falafel sandwhiches are not all that different at all, except that instead of thinly shaved pieces of meat, fried chickpea fritters are used.
2 cups dried chick peas, soaked in cold water overnight
4 to 5 cups sunflower, safflower, or peanut oil for frying
1/2 cup onion (1 small onion or 1/2 medium onion)
1 to 1 1/2 cups cilantro, parsley (Italian or curly), or a mixture of both
3 to 4 cloves garlic (more if you like more0
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin (use whole cumin seeds if possible, see below)
1/2 tsp coriander (also see below)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup flour (more if needed)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
This is very simple as most of the ingredients can be mixed in the food processor. However, I recommend a two-step process, as follows.
Drain the soaked beans and grind them in a food processor until they resemble a course, wet, flour. Pour the ground beans into a large bowl and return the processor bowl to the food processor (no need to clean it).
If using whole cumin seeds and coriander seeds, lightly dry toast them in a skillet over medium heat, tossing or stirring, until you can smell their aroma. Place the toasted seeds into a clean coffee grinder (keep a coffee grinder on hand for this purpose, they are cheap and you can get them at the grocery store), and grind until they are as fine as possible. If you are using pre-ground just place them into the mixture according to instructions.
Begin heating your oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. You are aiming for 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the cilantro, parsley, or both into the food processor and chop until very finely mixed. They will be almost liquid. Add the onion, garlic and continue processing until the onion and garlic is finely minced into the mixture. Add this mixture to your ground beans and mix well. Then add all the remaining ingredients, including the ground spices, and mix until everything is very well incorporated. The mixture should hold together somewhat but not be too wet and sticky. If it is very wet, add a bit more flour or bread crumbs. Instead of bread crumbs you can also use bread, which can be placed in the food processor with the vegetables before adding to the beans.
Shape the balls according to your preference, either by hand or using the two-spoon method. I recommend the latter. Make one croquette and place it in the hot oil for a test fry. It should hold together and fry up to a dark brown in just a few minutes. It it falls apart, the mix may be too wet, so add a bit more flour.
Drain the croquette on a wire rack placed on a large baking sheet (better than paper towels but paper towels will do in a pinch). Let it cool just long enough so you can taste it for seasoning. It should be crispy on the outside and moist and fluffy on the inside. Add more salt, cumin, or coriander, if you think it is necessary. Once you’ve fried all your remaining Falafel mix, serve them immediately, they dry out quickly and are best when warm and moist.
Place 3 to 4 falafel croquettes into pita bread halves that have been opened to form a pocket. Add Israeli salad and tahini sauce (optional), or yogurt sauce.
2 med cucumbers
2 med tomatoes
1/2 sweet bell pepper
1/2 red onion
cilantro, parsley, or both to taste
lettuce like bib or romaine (optional)
1 or 2 lemons, for juice
If the cucumbers skins are waxed, or if you prefer, peel them. Split the cucumbers down the middle. If they have lots of seeds, scrape them out with a small spoon. Chop all the vegetables into small uniform chunks. Dice the cilantro or parsley. You can also add a bit of mint, if you like.
Mix the vegetable dice together in a bowl and squeeze on some fresh lemon juice and a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Toss together and add salt to taste. Use this to put inside your falafel sandwiches, along with a tablespoon of tahini sauce, or serve it all separately on a plate. If you want some heat, add a hot green pepper to the mix. I’d recommend seeding it.
I prefer to keep the tahini sauce simple. One typical ingredient you find in lots of recipes is tons of raw garlic. I find all this minced raw garlic in an uncooked sauce to be overwhelming and I’d recommend that you take the radical step of dry roasting your garlic in a skillet, or in the oven, or just leaving it out.
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (more if needed)
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/3 tsp ground cayenne (optional)
2 to 3 cloves garlic (raw if you want but try roasting it)
1/2 cup water (more if needed)
salt to taste
1/2 cup to 1 cup plain yogurt (optional)
Pour tahini into a medium bowl (don’t use a small bowl). Add the lemon juice, spices, and garlic. Stir together. The tahini will bind up and become very thick. Don’t worry, the water will thin it back down. Add water and mix until a smooth sauce forms. If it is too thick, add more water. Add parsley and salt to taste.
If you want a lighter and more creamy sauce, add as much of the optional plain yogurt as you would like. Just remember to season accordingly. You can also make a plain yogurt sauce, without tahini.
Yogurt Sauce for Falafel
Personally, I prefer a yogurt sauce as I like the cool, light flavor of it, which, to me, goes better with the hearty falafel.
1 cup plain yogurt (Greek yogurt is great)
1 tbs lemon juice
2 to 3 garlic cloves (see above)
2 tbs minced parsley, cilantro, or both
1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
a little minced mint (optional)
salt to taste
Mix everything together and season with salt to taste. I think a bit of mint brings it over the top but this is entirely optional.