The world’s best falafel recipe comes from Egypt | Back to basics (2024)

A few years ago, I set out to discover who made the world’s best falafel. The dish had been a staple on the Leon menu in one form or another since we opened, but I felt we had yet to perfect the recipe.

I started my quest by calling the great culinary anthropologist Claudia Roden, who declared with refreshing certainty that the best falafel was to be found in Egypt. They made it with fava beans (a kind of broad bean which is also grown in Britain), she explained, which made it lighter and moister than the falafel made from chickpeas elsewhere in the Middle East. In Egypt, she said, the best falafel were widely acknowledged to be found in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. So that is where I went.

Once a cosmopolitan city filled with louche Europeans, Alexandria is no longer a place of beauty. Its neo-classical and art deco villas, in melancholy decay since the Westerners fled during the Suez crisis in 1956, are now squeezed between the square shoulders of concrete high-rises. But man, can the Alexandrians cook.

The world’s best falafel recipe comes from Egypt | Back to basics (1)

From the chargrilled corn-on-the-cob sold by street vendors on the Corniche to the delicate broth of crab and clams I slurped at an upmarket restaurant behind the boatyards, everything was cooked with a rare love and attention to detail. And everyone I spoke to agreed: the best place for falafel was the bustling fast-food institution Mohamed Ahmed.

Here, for under a pound, I ate until my innards begged for mercy: great pyramids of piping hot falafel – light and crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, flecked green with fresh coriander and spring onion.

I asked to speak to the chef, and they led me into the street and round the corner to an imposing wooden door. It opened on to a dark, high-ceilinged room, lit only by the flame from a gas burner under a huge vat of oil. Sitting beside the vat was the chef, repetitively forming falafel in the bowl of his hand and tossing them with a flick of his thumb into the oil at a rate of about 30 a minute. Every now and then he would scoop them out with a huge slotted spoon and pass them to a runner, who would sprint back to the restaurant to place these perfect golden nuggets on to the Formica tables.

I got the feeling he had been there, flicking perfect falafel into a vat, for at least 100 years. You and I will never match his expertise, but it’s worth a try. This recipe will take you as close to falafel perfection as you can get without a plane ticket.

Falafel heaven

Preparation time: 15 minutes, plus overnight soaking
Cooking time
: 5-8 minutes

Serves 4-6
250g dried split fava beans, covered in cold water and soaked overnight
3 garlic cloves, crushed
½ leek, finely chopped
5 spring onions, finely chopped
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp gram flour
1 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp ground cumin
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper
Sesame seeds
Oil, for frying (rapeseed, rice bran or sunflower)

The world’s best falafel recipe comes from Egypt | Back to basics (2)

1 Drain the split fava beans well in a sieve or colander. Tip them into a food processor, along with the rest of the ingredients, except for the sesame seeds. Blitz the ingredients to a rough paste and tip it out on to a clean surface.

2 Divide the mixture into 12-16 pieces, each about the size of a small golf ball. Press them down with your fingers to make small patties.

3 Sprinkle around 3 tbsp sesame seeds on to a plate and coat each side of the falafels roughly with the seeds. Transfer them to the fridge for at least 10 minutes.

4 To cook the falafel, fill a small pan with oil to a depth of about 3cm. Heat the oil – it will be ready when a piece of bread dropped in sizzles and turns brown quickly. Turn the heat down and start to cook the falafel in batches. I cooked mine 4 at a time and kept them warm on a baking tray in a low oven. Cook each side for 2-3 minutes, or until it is golden brown then flip them over and fry the other side.

5 Serve with a minty yoghurt sauce (see below), flatbreads and spiced aubergine (recipes below).

Yoghurt sauce

250ml plain yoghurt
3 tbsp tahini
1 garlic clove, crushed
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp chopped mint

1 Whisk all the ingredients together, then thin the sauce down to a suitable pouring consistency with a little cold water.

Spiced aubergine and tomato

Serves 4-6 as a side
3 tbsp olive oil
1 aubergine, cut into 1cm square dice
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
½ tsp sugar
A pinch of ground allspice
A pinch of cayenne pepper
A splash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and black pepper
Chopped coriander, mint or parsley

1 In a large frying pan, heat up the olive oil and saute the diced aubergine until golden brown. Drain on with a slotted spoon on to kitchen paper.

2 Add the sliced garlic to the remaining oil in the pan. Cook for a few minutes on a low heat. Before the garlic turns brown, add the tinned tomatoes with the sugar, allspice and cayenne.

3 Turn the heat up and reduce the sauce for about 10 minutes, or until very thick. Add the aubergine back to the pan. Heat through gently and add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Season well. Finish with fresh herbs.

Recipe by Jane Baxter. Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the natural fast-food restaurant chain Leon (@henry_leon). Get your kids cooking at cook5.co.uk

The world’s best falafel recipe comes from Egypt | Back to basics (2024)

FAQs

Is falafel originally from Egypt? ›

It is believed that falafel first emerged in Alexandria, the principal port of Egypt and the city with the largest concentration of European troops. Unlike many of the popular versions served in today's falafel restaurants, this first falafel was made with fava beans.

Which country makes the best falafel? ›

Best countries to taste and experience falafel

Traditionally, the best countries to enjoy falafel can be found in the Levant, from the Middle East to Northern Africa. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine are great foodie destinations with world-class falafel in every other corner.

What's the difference between Egyptian and falafel? ›

In most parts of the Middle East, falafel is made with ground chickpeas. In Egypt however, we make it with dried fava beans. These are best served with pita bread, tomato, onions, and tahini sauce.

What is original falafel made of? ›

Falafel are deep-fried balls or patties made from chickpeas or fava beans, sometimes both, plus fresh herbs and spices. Falafel is a popular Middle Eastern street food sold from vendors or fast-casual spots in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel, where it's the national dish.

Did Egypt invent hummus? ›

That being said, though, based on historical information, hummus likely originated from ancient Egypt. According to several historical sources, the earliest mention of hummus dates back to Egypt in the 13th century. Chickpeas were and are abundant in the Middle East and are still commonly eaten.

Which country invented falafel? ›

The first and most widely accepted claim is that it came from Egypt around 1000 years ago, brought by Egyptian Copts. The other theory is that it actually came from India in the 6th century. In 1882 the British occupied Egypt, by coincidence falafel started featuring in Egyptian literature at that time.

What is the difference between Egyptian and Israeli falafel? ›

Egyptian Falafel is made with Fava beans, and Syrian Falafel, just like Israeli and Lebanese falafel is made with chick-peas. Jordanian/Palestinian Falafel is made the same way.

Is falafel Israeli or Arab? ›

Falafel was made popular in Israel by Yemeni Jews in the 1950s. They brought with them the chickpea version of the dish from Yemen and introduced the concept of serving falafel balls in pita bread. And the way the Israeli falafel is served is, in my opinion, the main reason why Israeli falafel is truly, well, Israeli.

Is falafel healthy? ›

Researchers have found that falafel has many health benefits. It is high in fibre as it contains vegetables, legumes (beans, chickpeas, or almonds), and olive oil, all of which can help people stay healthy and maintain an optimal weight while reducing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and blood pressure.

Do Muslims eat falafel? ›

In the Mediterranean, many staples in both Muslim and Jewish tables of the period were pareve. This includes falafels and hummus, which are made of chickpeas, salads, and flatbreads. All pareve foods would count as halal regardless.

What bacteria is in falafel? ›

Eating uncooked falafel that has been left out for a few hours can pose a risk of foodborne illness due to bacteria growth. Bacteria can multiply rapidly in foods left at room temperature, potentially causing digestive issues or food poisoning.

What do Egyptians eat for breakfast? ›

Ful (Fava Beans)

Today, slowly stewed fava beans are the go-to Egyptian breakfast, but this hasn't always been the case. The ancient Egyptians do not seem to have eaten fava beans.

What are the 2 types of falafel? ›

There are three types of falafel--Traditional falafel, baked falafel and lemon falafel. “Where the traditional falafel is the basic fried falafel comprising a mix of chickpeas, onions, garlic, herbs and spices, baked falafels are made using fresh herbs in the chickpea mixture,” says Chef Sati from Ophelia.

Why can't I use canned chickpeas for falafel? ›

Turns out that dried chickpeas are essential to good falafel. See, canned chickpeas have already been cooked. Starch molecules within them have already burst and released their sticky contents, much of which get washed away in the cooking liquid, leaving the remaining chickpeas with very little clinging power.

What is Lebanese falafel made of? ›

Falafel is a Middle Eastern recipe that is basically mashed chickpeas with herbs and seasonings formed into patties and fried. It's a traditional food in Lebanon that's made with only a few ingredients and served plain with tahini sauce, hummus, or garlic sauce for dipping, or as a falafel sandwich or falafel wrap.

What is typical Egyptian food? ›

Examples of Egyptian dishes include rice-stuffed vegetables and grape leaves, hummus, falafel, shawarma, kebab and kofta. Others include ful medames, mashed fava beans; koshary, lentils and pasta; and molokhiya, bush okra stew.

Is falafel in apple and onion Egyptian? ›

Onion often works on bringing Apple's ideas to life as well as being the voice of reason of the duo. Falafel (voiced by Sayed Badreya) is Apple and Onion's Egyptian landlord, who lets them stay in the shack on top of his building. The show's plot often revolves around Falafel's financial issues or him being overworked.

Is falafel from Africa? ›

The origins of the falafel can be traced back to Egypt, which is located between Africa and the Middle East. Egyptians are said to eat falafels every day. In fact, falafels are considered their national dish. Falafels reached North America and Germany in the 20th century.

Is falafel a Coptic word? ›

'Falafel' (فلافل in Arabic‎) appears to trace its origins back to the Aramaic language word “palpēl” which was used to describe round balls. It is generally believed that falafel originated in Egypt, possibly with the Coptic Christian community where these meat-free fritters were eaten during Lenten meals.

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