Falafel balls are commonly served in a pita, which acts as a pocket, or wrapped in a flatbread, also known in western Arab countries as taboon. Falafel also frequently refers to a wrapped sandwich prepared with falafel balls laid over a bed of salad or pickled vegetables and drizzled with hot sauce or a tahini sauce. Falafel balls may also be eaten alone as a snack, or served as part of an assortment of appetizers known as a meze.
Falafel is also known as ṭaʿamiyya (Egyptian Arabic: طعمية [tˤɑʕˈmejjɑ]) in many parts of Egypt; the word is derived from a diminutive form of the Classical Arabic word ṭaʿām (طعام, "food");[dubious – discuss] the particular form indicates "a unit" of the given root in this case Ṭ-ʕ-M (ط ع م, having to do with taste and food), thus meaning "a little piece of food" or "small tasty thing". Nevertheless, in Alexandria, it is called falafel.
The word falafel can refer to the fritters themselves or to sandwiches filled with them.
The origin of falafel is controversial. A widely held theory is that the dish was invented in Egypt about 1000 years ago by Egyptians. As Alexandria is a port city, it was possible to export the dish and name to other areas in the Middle East. The dish later migrated northwards to the Levant, where chickpeas replaced the fava beans. It has been speculated, with no concrete evidence, that its history may go back to Pharaonic Egypt. Other theories propose that it came from the Arabs or Turks; or that the chickpea-based food came from Yemen.
Falafel grew to become a common form of street food or fast food in much of the Middle East, especially in the Levant and Egypt. The croquettes are regularly eaten as part of meze. During Ramadan, falafel balls are sometimes eaten as part of the iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast after sunset. Falafel became so popular that McDonald's for a time served a "McFalafel" in its breakfast menu all over Egypt. Falafel is still popular with Egyptians, who eat it on a regular basis along with ful medames and even cook large volumes during religious holidays.
Debates over the origin of falafel have sometimes devolved into political discussions about the relationship between Arabs and Israelis. In modern times, falafel has been considered a national dish in Egypt, also in Palestine, and of Israel. Resentment exists amongst many Palestinians for what they see as the appropriation of their dish by Israelis. Additionally, the Lebanese Industrialists' Association attempted to claim Protected Designated Origin status, partly to prevent Israeli use of the word.
Despite the frying process, the inside of a falafel ball remains soft.
In North America, prior to the 1970s, falafel was found only in Middle Eastern neighborhoods and restaurants. Today, the dish is a common and popular street food in many cities throughout North America.
Germany has seen an increase in the popularity of falafel since the last decades of the 20th century. In Berlin, the areas of the former West Berlin play a special role, as they host a comparatively large Arab community. However, falafel shops have been located mainly in areas undergoing gentrification, rather than being chiefly part of an Arab subculture. While the operators are usually Arabs, the customers are predominantly middle-class Germans. Some restaurants associated with the thriving Jewish and Israeli community in Berlin also serve falafel.
Falafel restaurants sometimes feature Middle-Eastern decor meant to give an impression of exotic authenticity. However, the food has been adapted. For example, a unique sweet mango sauce is used in place of the sour-salty amba found in the Middle East, and take-away sandwiches in pita bread typically contain assorted vegetables, pickles, and sauces, in contrast to simpler Middle-Eastern presentations.
When chickpeas are used, they are not cooked prior to use (cooking the chickpeas will cause the falafel to fall apart, requiring adding some flour to use as a binder). Instead they are soaked (sometimes with baking soda) overnight, then ground together with various ingredients such as parsley, scallions, and garlic. Spices such as cumin and coriander are often added to the beans for added flavor. The mixture is shaped into balls or patties. This can be done by hand or with a tool called an aleb falafel (falafel mould). The mixture is usually deep fried, or it can be oven baked.
When not served alone, falafel is often served with flat or unleavened bread, such as wrapped within lafa or stuffed in a hollow pita. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other garnishes, such as pickles can be added. Falafel is commonly accompanied by tahini.
Falafel is typically ball-shaped, but is sometimes made in other shapes, particularly doughnut-shaped. The inside of falafel may be green (from green herbs such as parsley or green onion), or tan.
When made with chickpeas, falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B, and folate. Phytochemicals include beta-carotene. Falafel is high in soluble fiber, which has been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol.
Chickpeas are low in fat and contain no cholesterol, but a considerable amount of fat is absorbed during the frying process. Falafel can be baked to reduce the high fat content associated with frying.
The current record for largest falafel ball, 74.75 kg (164.4 lb), was set on 28 July 2012 in Amman, Jordan by the Landmark hotel. Using a standard recipe, 10 chefs prepared the 130 cm diameter falafel ball.
The record for largest serving of falafel, 5,173 kg (11,404 lb 8 oz), was set by Chef Ramzi Choueiri and the students of Al-Kafaat University (Lebanon) in Beirut on 9 May 2010.
In 2019, falafel was added as an emoji by the Unicode Consortium, based partly on an argument that vegetarian, halal, kosher, and Middle Eastern/North African foods are underrepresented in the emoji food set.
On 18 June 2019, falafel was celebrated with a Google Doodle.
Falafel before frying
Uncooked falafel balls and a falafel press
Falafel balls frying
Falafel balls after frying
Vada (food): Parippu vada is a similar-tasting south Indian preparation using lentils (toor daal)
Acarajé: a West African dish made from peeled beans formed into a ball and then deep-fried