If there is one thing I learned after a year away from my home country it is that I am, in fact, an Israeli cliche. What I miss most – family, friends and winter sunshine not withstanding – is a proper streetside falafel. There are a lot of good things to eat in Israel; the produce is amazing: tomatoes taste good all year round, cucumbers are sweet and crunchy. There are lots of traditional and modern bakeries and, now more than ever before, there are great restaurants with local and international cuisine. But for me, it is still the local falafel stall that is my first port of call, for a portion (mana – a whole pitta) or a half (hetzi mana).
Of course we serve falafel in our restaurant, but falafel is not and never will be restaurant food for me. Even after eight years and thousands of falafel balls sold in our London restaurants, I am always a bit surprised to see our guests tackling them with a glass of wine and, weirder still, a knife and fork. This delicacy needs to be eaten in the street, in the sun, in a pitta stuffed to the brink of explosion with as many falafel balls as can fit and then one on top, chopped salad and cabbage salad, pickles, hot sauce – fiery red from fermented chillies or dark green from herbs – and, of course, tahini to keep it all together and to lubricate. It must drip down your arms and chin and destroy your shirt as you bite. It is worth mentioning that two halves are better than a whole: the half portion has a better falafel/pitta/salad/tahini ratio, but that is a real connoisseur’s trick.
Like anything with meaning, falafel is not without its baggage: it must be acknowledged that falafel is deeply, emotionally and historically connected to the cuisine of many Arab cultures – Egyptian, Palestinian and Lebanese – and I am not claiming it as a “national dish”, but it is an inseparable part of my culinary psyche.
It is also part of my heritage – my great-grandfather sold falafel in Alexandria, then later in the market in Jerusalem. I never met him, never tried his falafel, and the recipe, if there ever was one, died with him. This is a re-creation based on one we tried at the feted Mohamed Ahmed in Alexandria, with a heady seasoning of cinnamon and cumin.
Falafel need to be started the night before, or at least eight hours in advance, by soaking the dry chickpeas in at least four times their volume of water. (It will never work with tinned chickpeas – ever.) The end weight will be double the original, so 250g dried should end up as 500g soaked. If the first time you cover them the water goes murky, strain them and add fresh water, as they can be dirty. Once they’re soaked, lift them out of the water to a bowl, rather than tipping the bowl into a strainer – this way you leave the impurities in the water.
Remove any chickpeas that have gone black and check for little pebbles. A lot depends on how well they were packed: we once had a customer who found a pebble in her falafel, which ended in a rather a nasty blogpost.
Makes about 20 balls
500g soaked chickpeas (from 250g dry)
1 large onion (approx 180g)
2 cloves of garlic (peeled)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp gram flour (or plain flour)
1 tsp salt
Vegetable oil (sunflower or rapeseed) for frying
Use a coarse blade on a meat grinder if you have it – the texture is nicer – or use the pulse setting on a food processor. Blitz or grind the chickpeas, onion and garlic to get the same texture throughout. It should be quite gravelly and not too smooth. Then transfer to a large bowl and add all the spices, baking powder, flour and salt. Mix into a paste. Squeeze a little in your palm to a ball; it should hold its shape well. The mix can be made a day ahead and kept in the fridge.
If you own an electric fryer, use that, or set a medium pan on the heat and half-fill with a neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower or rapeseed. The fryer should be at 170C; in a pan, test the oil by placing a small piece of bread or falafel mix in the oil, and as soon as it starts to bubble up and float, you’re ready to go.
Shape the falafel – with damp hands – into little balls or torpedo shapes, or just go free-form, dropping the mix off a spoon. They are tasty whichever way. (Special scoops, from £4, are worth buying online if you intend going pro.) The falafel need to be about the size of a walnut so they cook through and crisp at the same time. Really large ones might stay raw in the centre.
Carefully place them in the oil (don’t overcrowd the pan) and fry until the exterior is brown and crisp (two to three minutes). Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb the excess oil. Serve immediately in pitta (from a Middle Eastern grocer) with trimmings and hot sauce.
Finely chop cucumber and tomatoes, peppers if you want luxe, fresh chillies. Add shredded lettuce, chopped mint and parsley, season with salt, pepper, oil and more lemon juice than you think appropriate.
Mix equal quantities of tahini paste and cold water in a bowl, add as much crushed garlic as you can bear and bring together with a fork or a spatula to a smooth cream – you may need to add a bit more water. Season with salt and lemon juice.
Finely shred white cabbage, sprinkle with salt and let stand for 5-10 minutes till the cabbage softens a bit. Add oil, lemon and lots of chopped parsley. Or use sauerkraut from a jar.
Pickled chillies, cucumber and pink turnip pickles are available from Middle Eastern grocers.
• Itamar Srulovich co-owns three Middle Eastern restaurants in London with his wife, Sarit Packer. They are the authors of four cookery books, including Chasing Smoke (Pavilion, £26), available at the Guardian Bookshop price of £22.62