Opinion and Editorial

Does it matter whose falafel is it anyway?

abhishek@khaleejtimes.com Filed on September 21, 2020

Nothing brings the two disparate worlds of Arabs and the Israelis closer than a bite of this modest little street food every single day

So last Tuesday while discussing the brewing UAE-Israel friendship on a freewheeling Facebook live chat with an Emirati colleague as Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were signing the historic Abraham Accord at the White House, I stumbled upon a question that's been intriguing me since. Is falafel Arabic or Israeli?  

For many of us, the popular deep-fried patty made from ground chickpeas or fava beans and wrapped in warm pita bread is just as good as it gets. If you banned currencies in the Middle East for a day, falafel could well do the business and, as it turns out, its charm and appeal transcend all kinds of the human divide - religious, political, and anything in between. But the question is, whose falafel is it anyway? 

As a long-time UAE expat from India, a country known for its own unique and diverse variety of street food, I will have to admit, I am a top fan of the humble falafel. In fact, such is my love for it that I always order a full plate of the falafel served with pita on the side and salads, pickled vegetables, and hot sauce in tow. And there is no joy greater than unwrapping the freshly baked bread with your own hands to make the falafel crumble inside before garnishing it with an emphatic drizzle of the tahini. And for many of my friends and family including my wife, who are picky eaters and often chose certain days of the week to turn their focus and attention to veganism to suit their conscience, falafel has always come in as a handy alternative worth a try.  

I can have falafel any day of the week and have had it innumerable times in Dubai, Sharjah, and even as far as in Amsterdam where the sandwiches at Maoz, an American chain of falafel with an Israeli heart and badge of honour, is a bigger rage for many. 

It may just have been about a week since the UAE and Israel signed the now historic accord to normalise relations, but it's got a lot of people like me dreaming already. As the two countries work on setting up diplomatic missions, establishing regular flights and launching new business and commercial ties, the best thing to have come out of this newfound peace, for me personally, is a mouth-watering prospect - that of unwrapping a falafel and sinking teeth into a freshly fried chickpea and fava beanball while overlooking the old city of Jerusalem from atop the hill of the Al Aqsa compound or while strolling along a Tel Aviv beachfront. For a gourmand like me with an overriding and overarching lust for travel, this one reverie ticks several boxes. And it is what's keeping me up in hopes that one day I too shall set foot in Israel, one of the veritable homes of food from the Levant, for an authentic taste of Israel. 

But is falafel their own as is often claimed? As I found out at Maoz and my colleague Mustafa validated, their falafel is perhaps a 'little greener' with the goodness of coriander, parsley, and filling options that range from the classic Israeli salad made up of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, to carrots, cabbage, fried eggplant, and pickled veggies. Yet the origins of the dish, says my research, remain truly Arabic and lie in Egypt where the Coptic Christians first began eating falafel during Lent instead of meat. Out of the port city of Alexandria, the dish later migrated northwards to the Levant, where chickpeas gradually replaced the fava beans and the rest as they say is history! 

Those in Egypt or Sudan may still call it ta?amiya, Arabic for nourishment, to suggest "a little piece of food" or "small tasty thing" but for the rest of the world, including here in Dubai and the rest of the UAE, falafel it is. And nothing brings the two disparate worlds of Arabs and the Israelis closer, unbeknownst to many, than a bite of this modest little street food every single day unlike a Big Mac or a Frankfurter. Does it really matter then whose falafel is it? -abhishek@khaleejtimes.com 



Abhishek Sengupta

Abhishek is the head of multimedia at Khaleej Times and has worked in radio and television channels before joining UAE's first English daily. Semi-skilled in breaking news and storytelling for visual and print media, he feels he is more comfortable talking than writing. A food and travel enthusiast, he is always busy making itineraries when not producing videos for Khaleej Times.

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