Falafel has long been a mainstay of many Middle Eastern cuisines, how long exactly will always be a guess, but it is fair to claim that this chickpea based, and highly addictive snack has been around in one form or another for at least a few millennia. Harold McGee, in his leviathan work regarding the history, science and lore of cuisine - On Food and Cooking, states that chickpeas have been under cultivation in the near East for 7000 years. That is a pretty generous amount of time to come up with a few solid recipes.
So what exactly is falafel? Dried pulses or peas are soaked until softened, then pureed with herbs and other flavourings and shaped into small cakes or patties. These are then fried until they are crisp on the exterior, and meltingly herby inside. As TheLady explains above, the shape will vary from country to country. In the main, chickpeas are the dried pulse of choice - but there are variations. The most conspicuous of these is Egypt, which traditionally uses dried broad beans (fava beans) in their falafel, as they do with many other dishes - indeed the national dish is a breakfast stew of broad beans called ful medames. You will also notice the absence of cooking the chickpeas - before they are fried as falafel that is. The recipe below contains no misprints. The chickpeas are simply soaked before they are chopped into pinhead-sized pieces in the food processor. Be wary of any recipe that asks you to boil the chickpeas first, as this will result in mushy-centered falafel, instead of a textured dish, full of integrity.
In Australia, falafel were introduced by Lebanese migrants during the 1970's, and many shocking versions could be had in late-night take-away shops. They were invariably served wrapped in ordinary pita bread, along with lashings of limp iceberg lettuce, underripe tomatoes and thick wedges of raw onion. Sauce - tomato or barbeque? "Both, thank you very much Abdul".
It is sad that these travesties ever occurred, because a good falafel roll is not all that hard to achieve. Use good pita bread (or even better, cook my recipe for flatbread), fill it with ripe tomatoes, crisp lettuce, picked herbs, homemade hummus and freshly cooked falafel, and you have a gastronomic street-food snack that is nigh on impossible to beat in the flavour stakes. Alternatively, serve them alone as snacks, with a sauce to dip into, such as hummus, babaghanoush, or thick yoghurt mixed with garlic, sea salt and tahini.
I used to avoid making falafel at home, being under the mistaken impression that they were difficult, messy and arcane. Don't let yourself be put off for the same reasons. The simple fact is - these sensationally tasty snacks are the essence of simplicity to make, and as a bonus - they will almost certainly taste better than anything that you can buy.
Ready? Lets cook'em
This isn't the most enticing way to start a recipe, but you will need to start a day in advance. The good news is all you need to do is soak the chickpeas, which will cost you all of 2 minutes. Choose a bowl or bucket of at least 1 litre (2 pint'ish) capacity and add the chickpeas. Cover them completely with cold water. Whack them in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or overnight. They will swell up alarmingly to around 3 times their original size as they soak up the water.
Pick the leaves from the herbs and give them a quick wash to remove any dirt or other undesirables. Drain, and then shake them thoroughly to dry. Drain the soaked chickpeas completely, and place them in a food processor, along with the herbs and all the other ingredients, except the oil. Process well, until the chickpeas are very finely chopped, and the herbs have made the whole mess an enticing hue of green. Tip the mix out into a bowl, then form into your desired size and shape. I find 5 cm diameter, slightly flattened discs to be a good benchmark. If need be, you can plate up the falafel, and refrigerate them for a few hours at this stage.
Heat the oil in a wide, high-sided frying pan to a depth of 3 or 4 cm. You are aiming for about 160 °C (330 °F), but in the absence of a deep-frying thermometer, a cube of bread will turn golden in about 20 second. If the oil is smoking - it is too hot.
Add the falafel in a single layer. Don't crowd the pan, as it will cool the oil too much - lessening your chances of gustatory bliss. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes on one side - or until they are a nice and deep golden brown. Turn them over and cook the other side. Continue until all the remaining falafel are cooked. Ideally, you really should eat these straight away, while they are still hot and fresh. But if you have to cook them ahead of time - gently reheat them for a few second in the microwave - and only expect 6 1/2 out of 10 on the yum-o-scale.
OK, so just recently I tried making these with cannelini beans instead of the traditional chickpeas. They certainly worked, but there are a couple of points to keep in mind before substituting like this.
Firstly, they had a great flavour, but held a much firmer texture (verging on crunchy) than a regular falafel. Secondly, and more importantly, I’m not sure cannelini beans (and quite possibly other beans as well) are meant to be consumed in a semi-raw state like this. Let me put it less delicately. The resultant wind can be viewed as either awe-inspiring or horrifying, depending on your take on fart gags. You have been warned.
gn0sis draws my attention to a genuinely bizarre kitchen gadget called The Falafel Tool. I thought the inside-the-shell egg scrambler was just about the most useless kitchen tool I have ever seen, until I saw this thing. Feast your eyes and gape in wonder.