One of the ultimate street foods, falafel originates from the Middle East and packs a spicy taste sensation into each crispy, chickpea-based ball. Traditionally served with salad, hummus or yogurt sauce and wrapped in warm, toasted pita, these vegetarian treats are truly delicious. Deep-fried or oven-baked, falafel is also surprisingly nutritious, providing an excellent source of plant-based protein as well as fiber and complex carbohydrates, meaning that they are great for a healthy meal or a snack on the go.
We take a look at this fabulous chickpea fritter and show you just how easy it is to impress your dinner guests by making your own falafel at home.
What Is A Falafel?
Simple and delicious, the falafel is a fritter ball made from ground chickpeas and spiced with garlic, herbs and spices, including coriander, cumin and parsley. They are best eaten freshly cooked and hot, traditionally as a ‘falafel sandwich’ in a warm pita bread or as an appetizer, served with sauce and salad.
A popular snack for vegetarians, if served without the traditional yoghurt sauce then the falafel is totally vegan and is one of the most consumed street food snacks across the globe.
History Of The Falafel
The national dish of Israel and widely embraced across the Middle East, it is thought the falafel can be tracked back around 1,000 years to Egypt, where it was believed to have been created by Christians as a replacement for meat during their fasting seasons.
The original falafel was made out of fava beans, which was grown in large quantities in the region and was a staple of the Egyptian diet and from which the falafel is thought to have taken its name. The popularity of falafel spread, and was also known as ta’miyya, which means ‘a bite of food’ and was often the staple food for breakfast as well as a popular street vendor snack. The chickpea incarnation of the falafel is relatively modern, with the 20th Century seeing this delicious Middle Eastern dish cross into the global mainstream.
The Big Falafel Questions:
So, now we know the background to the falafel, we can look at how to make an authentic version of the spicy fritter ourselves. Before we do, there are just a few falafel questions to put to rest:
- Dried or canned chickpeas?
While the original falafel was made from fava beans, today’s version is predominately made from the protein-packed chickpea. With a delicious nutty taste and a slightly grainy texture, the chickpea is also the staple ingredient for that other Middle Eastern classic, hummus and is grown in warmer or tropical climes.
With falafels dependent on a coarser texture to hold their own, it is widely agreed that canned chickpeas are a no-no. Canned chickpeas are much softer and will result in a mushy texture and when it comes to authentic falafel, that is not a good look.
So, when making falafels at home, always use dried chickpeas. It will be more time-consuming as you will need to soak them, ideally overnight, but the effort will be worth it and will produce mouth-watering falafels that have that all-important texture as well as bite.
- Fry or bake?
Traditional falafels are deep-fried, to give them that gorgeous golden color and crunch but this deep-frying certainly ups the calorie quota, so while the ingredients of the fritter are healthy, the cooking method doesn’t quite cut the mustard if you are watching your weight. Many cooks prefer more of a shallow fry when it comes to making falafels and it works just as well, giving that required browning and delicious flavor without the mess or high-calorie surge.
If frying is simply not your thing, then you can bake falafels and cut down on the total fat and calories. Simply follow the main falafel recipe, then place your balls on a baking tray, lightly brush or spray each falafel with a little quality olive oil and bake to a golden crisp for around 15 minutes. Equally delish.
- Can I make falafels ahead?
Whilst at its most tasty when cooked fresh, your falafel mixture can be kept in the fridge for up to three days, as long as it is stored in an airtight container. Resting the mixture overnight can even help when it comes to forming those all-important falafel balls.
Once cooked, falafels can last for around three days in the fridge. To bring them back to life, toast in a toaster oven (or heat in a regular oven) until warmed through but still slightly crisp.
- Can you freeze falafels?
Yes, you can freeze your falafel mixture – simply make up into your pre-cooked balls then freeze on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once frozen, transfer the individually frozen falafel balls into a freezer bag then pop back into the chiller. They should keep in the freezer for around a month and you can fry or bake them from frozen. Leftover cooked falafels can also be frozen, just use them within a few weeks to ensure they stay tasty-fresh.
- Are falafels really healthy?
When you look at the ingredient list, on paper falafels are healthy in that they provide a range of nutrients as well as quality plant protein. With a traditional recipe and the spices used, you also get a nice hit of potassium, zinc, calcium and magnesium, all essential minerals for your body. Then there is the fiber and B-vitamin content from the chickpeas, great for a healthy digestion and helping to lower cholesterol. Plus, falafels are very satisfying and slow energy release, helping you to manage your sugar levels and hunger pangs.
The downside to the falafel is the cooking method – deep frying will mean these tasty treats are also high in fat, which accounts for half the calories found in every falafel ball. And they can also be a tad on the high side when it comes to salt. In fact, a 100-gram portion of fried falafel will have around 330 calories. To bring down the calorific value of your homemade falafels, consider shallow frying or, even better, baking them and watch your seasoning. But as an occasional tasty treat, frying falafels can have the flavor edge.
How To Make The Best Homemade Falafel
The perfect falafel is golden crisp on the outside, yet still moist and fluffy on the inside and gives you a nutty taste that is packed with a deliciously spicy flavor. Here’s everything you need to know to achieve that authentic falafel taste and crunch:
Homemade falafel should not be complicated, and you will only need a handful of kitchen utensils to make an authentic recipe your friends and family will love.
You will need a large mixing bowl and ideally a food processor to get the consistency of your falafel mix just right. If you don’t have a processor, a hand blender will do.
If you are planning to deep fry, make sure your pot is deep enough to hold a good batch of falafel balls and to ensure the oil maintains its temperature throughout the fry. For shallow frying, a good quality cast iron skillet is ideal for the job. And don’t forget a pair of quality tongs to safely move your falafel balls around.
There are many variations on the below recipe, and you can also style up the spices to suit your own taste, but as the core ingredient list for super-tasty, homemade falafels, you will need:
- Two cups of dried chickpeas
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 cup fresh parsley (chopped)
- ¾ cup cilantro/coriander (chopped)
- I small onion (chopped)
- 4-6 garlic cloves (coarsely chopped)
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp ground cilantro/coriander
- 1-2 tbsp olive oil
- Squeeze of lemon (optional)
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or baking powder
- 1 tbsp ground black pepper
- Salt – to taste
- Vegetable oil, for frying
How To Make Your Falafels
Prep time: 15 minutes; cook time: 30 minutes.
- Soak your chickpeas – place the dry chickpeas and a little baking soda in a large bowl then add enough water so they are covered with about an inch to spare and leave at room temperature for around 24 hours. During this time, they should double in size and you will know when they are ready to use as you can break them apart with your fingers. Drain thoroughly.
- Make your falafel mix – place the soaked and drained chickpeas in a large bowl and add the chopped onion, garlic, parsley, olive oil, cumin, cilantro (fresh and dry), salt and pepper, as well as a squeeze of fresh lemon if you like, then stir well to combine.
- Blend well – transfer your fragrant falafel mix to a food processor and pulse until the chickpeas are finely chopped and you have a well-blended, but still slightly coarse mixture. Now sprinkle the flour or baking powder over the mixture before doing one final pulse to complete the mix. Test by taking a small amount of the mixture in your hand and squeezing to check that it can form and then hold a ball.
- Top tip – when making your falafel mixture, pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour to chill. This will make forming those all-important falafel balls much easier and help them to hold their shape when cooking.
- Shape your falafels – you are looking to make a ping-pong sized ball, which is roughly two tablespoons of mix. Work the mixture between your (clean) hands to form a small ball then place on a parchment paper-lined baking tray. Work through the mixture until you have a tray full of evenly spaced falafel balls (you should be able to make 20-24 small balls from this falafel recipe).
- If frying:
- Heat your oil – put your vegetable oil into your deep pan or skillet then bring up to 350°F, so that the oil is bubbling gently.
- Fry your falafels – once the oil is hot enough, gently add small batches of falafel – around six at a time – to the pan and fry until a deep golden brown, turning each ball over half-way through. Each batch should take around 5-7 minutes to cook nicely for that golden crisp outer, with a soft center. Use a scoop to carefully remove your falafels and place on a paper towel to drain away any excess oil.
- If baking:
- Heat your oven – get your oven up to the correct temperature, which is 375°F so you can get that nice golden crisp and moist center that makes falafel so delicious.
- Bake your falafels – space your falafel balls evenly on a parchment-lined baking tray and pop into your hot oven. Your falafels should take 12-15 minutes to bake, but don’t forget to flip each ball halfway through so they cook and crisp evenly.
Ways To Serve Falafel
Across the Middle East, falafel is traditionally served piping hot, with a generous serving of tahini or yoghurt sauce. But if you are looking for inspiration on the variety of ways you can serve up your own homemade falafel, here are just a few tasty ideas:
- Falafel sandwich – for a quick and easy way to chow down on falafel, simply warm up a couple of pita pockets and split so you can load up with falafel, add some freshly sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and pickles then drizzle with tahini or a homemade yoghurt and mint or dill sauce. Or you could use a tortilla to make a falafel wrap. So simple, but so delicious!
- Falafel burger – swap your usual beef patty for a specially made and extra-large, slightly flattened falafel for a delicious vegetarian alternative to the classic burger. Add slices of beef tomato, pickles, fresh lettuce, even a slice of spicy cheese plus your favorite burger sauce and those taste buds will zing!
- A twist on the taco – shake up your falafel recipe by swapping out the chickpeas for black beans, add some fresh chilli to the mix and you have a tasty alternative filling for your Mexican taco. Serve your black bean falafels in tortillas, with shredded lettuce, salsa, grated cheese and fresh cilantro.
- Make a meal of it – for a more substantial plate of food, use your homemade falafels to create a delicious vegetarian supper. Place 5-6 falafels on your plate, then add other Middle Eastern-inspired dishes, such as tabbouleh salad, hummus and eggplant-based baba ganoush.