Thursday, March 8, 2018

Baked Falafel: Light and Delicious

الفلافل الفرنية لذيذة وخفيفة

Have your falafel and eat them, fry-free! Here is a way to make sure the chickpeas you are devouring are fully cooked and hence easier on the digestive system. 

Falafel is a Middle-Eastern snack food well known and loved in most parts of the world. Basically, it is ground chickpeas mixed with herbs and spices, shaped into balls or small patties, and deep-fried. The variety made with fava beans is called ta'miyya (طعمية). It is the favorite snack food in Egypt. Some people, though, prefer to make falafel with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans. Interestingly, falafel in Yemen is called bajiyya باجية,  made with a combination of chickpeas and black-eyed peas (cowpeas), which is lubya in Arabic, and dejer دجر in the Yemeni vernacular (here is a link for how it is made in Yemen).     

Whether from chickpeas, fava beans, cowpeas, or whatever beans, this type of fried snack food has always been a very popular food in the Middle East from olden times: a cheap alternative to meat -- it is  also known as kebab al-fuqara' (كباب الفقراء) 'kebab of the poor;'  and it conveniently replaces meat for Lent meals consumed by fasting Christians. That is how such fried delights -- made with fava beans-- came into being, according to one of the stories, which attributes its beginnings to the ancient Egyptian Copts.                      

In fact, that chickpeas were used to replace meat and eggs during Lent is evident from recipes that survived from medieval times. In the tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook كتاب الطبيخ by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq (p. 236), a fried disk is made with mashed chickpeas. The same recipe is repeated in fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook كنز الفوائد (p. 172). Likewise, in the thirteenth-century Andalusian cookbook Anwa' al-Saydala fi Alwan al-At'ima (انواع الصيدلة في الوان الاطعمة), where a similar disc, called isfiriyya اسفرية, is made basically from chickpea flour (p.4). Such meatless dishes were collectively called muzawwarat مزورات, 'false' or 'counterfeit' dishes made to simulate comparable dishes with meat.

The medieval physicians were also of the opinion that such false dishes were fit for the sick because they were believed to be easier to digest than the meat ones.        

Falafel in Iraq was first popularized by the Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland in 1948, and now it has become a favorite street food. However, unlike the rest of the Middle Eastern countries where the falafel sandwich is served rolled in pita bread, the Iraqis usually use sammoun bread (صمون) to stuff the fried balls in it. In my recipe below I used pita bread for convenience, but feel free to use any bread comparable to sammoun in texture such as ciabatta.  


Falafel is usually deep fried. To give it a lighter touch, you may bake it and save yourself the trouble of frying. More importantly, you will be quite sure that the chickpeas will be fully cooked, and they will not be as hard on the digestive system. Here is the recipe:     

Baked Falafel
 (Makes about 18 pieces)

3 1/2 cups of boiled chickpeas, or use two 15.5-oz canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained well 
1 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped, optional
2 garlic cloves, grated
1/4 cup grated onion
3 tablespoons flour, preferably whole wheat
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

Sesame seeds for coating
Olive oil for brushing
Sumac for sprinkling 

1. Combine and mix all the ingredients (except for the sesame seeds, olive oil, and sumac) in a large bowl. Process the mixture in a food processor, in batches (depending on its size), until smooth. 

2. Form falafel mixture into rounded patties (handle with slightly wetted hands), roll each piece in the sesame seeds, and place it in an oiled cookie sheet.

3. Brush the pieces with olive oil and bake in a preheated oven (400°F), middle shelf, for about 25 minutes, until they nicely crisp and brown. Handle them with care for they will be a bit brittle.     

4. Make falafel sandwiches by arranging three pieces of falafel on a warmed up round of pita bread. Scatter some diced salad vegetables (such as tomatoes and cucumber, or whatever you prefer). Drizzle all with some tahini sauce, made by whipping tahini with lemon juice and water, and season with some salt and grated garlic (if sauce turns out to be thick, add some more water and whip). Sprinkle all lightly with some sumac, and roll up the bread, and enjoy.

You may also serve the falafel without bread: simply arrange the pieces on a platter and serve them with tahini sauce. Also lovely with a dip of pepper jam. 

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