Long before hamburgers, pizza and French fries, there was falafel – a traditional Mediterranean dish that has been enjoyed for centuries. A popular street food in Israel, falafel has also made a name for itself in America. Why? Simply put, it tastes good, and it’s pretty good for you, too – a winning combination. But what’s in falafel?
The name “falafel” can refer to the entire dish, but it more accurately describes the main ingredient – falafel balls.
Originally falafel balls were made out of fava beans, chickpeas or some combination of both. These days, falafel balls are usually made out of chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), but you can still find other variations depending on where you buy your falafel.
The chickpeas are soaked, then ground up, and seasoned with onions, scallions and spices like parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander. Then, the mixture is shaped into balls and deep-fried in a large vat. The oil has to be hot enough so that when you drop the balls in, the outside gets nice and crispy and the inside doesn’t get too oily – a delicate balance that the best falafel makers have achieved.
The falafel balls are often served wrapped in a hollow pita shell and garnished with fixings like tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles and sometimes even French fries. Falafel restaurants offer other garnishes as well, such as eggplant salad, shredded beets or pickled vegetables. The whole sandwich is coated with hummus, drizzled with tahini and, if you’re so inclined, topped with a spicy sauce as well.
Many falafel restaurants also serve a meat counterpart to the falafel known as Shawarma, which is usually lamb (but can be chicken or turkey) roasted on a spit and shaved off for sandwiches.
What’s great about falafel is that it’s a meatless option for vegetarians that is chock-full of nutrients like fiber, protein and folate. Chickpeas are also low in sodium and saturated fat. That’s not to say it’s as healthy as a green salad. Some falafel pitas can have as many as 750 calories, 30 grams of fat and a whopping 1500 milligrams of sodium. So it’s important to eat your falafel in moderation – and be aware of what toppings you’re choosing and how they impact your calorie count.
Falafel has always been a mainstay on the menu in the Mediterranean, but it also made its way onto the menu in many other countries’ restaurants as well. If you don’t happen to live near a falafel joint, you can definitely try your hand at making some at home. This way, you can have more control of the ingredients and how healthy you make it. (You can even bake the balls in the oven instead of deep-frying them, though they won’t be as crispy.)