Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem starts with a chapter titled ‘Would you like to Eat Now or Wait for the Cease-fire?’. And, the title, more or less, illustrates the complexity of the relentless conflict in the Middle East. Thanks to the Brits and the French, the region has, since the early 1900s, been a tinderbox, and nearly every country out there has gone to war with its neighbours, or threatened to. They are also equally impassioned about their food. Take falafel, for instance (there has been much argument over hummus, too, as this Guardian article explains here.)
Did the Jews invent it, or was it the Arabs who first made this fried patty from ground chickpeas or fava beans, or, at times, both? And is the Egyptian version — apparently, the Egyptians prefer making falafel with broad beans — better than the Israeli falafel, or do the Lebanese do it better than both the others? Last week, the Dubai-headquartered Global Pulse Confederation (GPC) organised a falafel festival in London — neutral ground, obviously — to find out.
The participants included Moustafa Elrafaey, an acclaimed falafel expert from Egypt, Beirut’s Hadi Hazim; Israeli Uri Dinray, who runs Pilpel, in London; Palestinian-Lebanese Rasheed Muhammed, owner of the Hoxton Beach, in London, whose falafel is made “with a half and half mixture of organic Turkish chickpeas and skinned fava beans”; and there was also Abdullah Amin and his fusion falafel.
According to the GPC, the festival had everything from “the traditional spiced chickpea falafel with fresh salads in pita bread, to the bespoke “TRI-lafal”, made from blending three pulses (chickpeas, blackeyed beans and red split lentils) with three dipping sauces.”
And, what of the contest? Who won? The Guardian’s Rachel Shabi, who covered the event and sampled all the falafels, thought that the Egyptian version was the best. “…theirs just killed it. Made with ground-on-the-spot fava beans, leeks, fresh coriander and spices, and stuffed with smoky aubergine, this falafel is light and delicate and delicious.” And, she was right. On an associated website, the GPC announced that “by the narrowest of margins (132.5 votes to 131), Egyptian Falafel master Moustafa Elrafaey of ZOOBA Cairo was voted the most popular recipe: Faba Bean Falafel with beetroot hibiscus tahini.”
Elrafaey later told Shabi, “I don’t think falafel is Egyptian,” he tells me. “I know it is.” Obviously, he hasn’t heard of an Israeli researcher called Shaul Stampfer, who last year, after much assiduous work on the history of food in the Middle East, concluded that the “falafel is too recent a development to have been appropriated by anyone.” Read more here.