The Kerfuffle Over Food and Cultural Identity
by Ghada Fathi
The relationship between food and identity is inextricable. History books are full of “sha’abi foods” for almost all nations, and food in many religions is either part of religious rituals practiced by its worshippers or subject to legislative provisions. Throughout history, nations – especially those with a long history of civilization – have tended to prepare food so that its role goes beyond satisfying hunger and sustaining life, to the extent that it has become a form of “art.” Until nearly two centuries ago, symbols of different identities in most parts of the world were welcome and often celebrated, whatever their origin. But cultural and political transformations witnessed by the world have turned people’s hospitable nature into varying degrees of sensitivity towards symbols which indicate the presence of the other. This includes food.
FOOD AND IDENTITY
It is a historical irony that the advancement of media and digital technology and its ability to be a window into any place in the world was expected to reinforce and increase the similarities between people all over the world. In reality, it has deepened the need for individuality in a way that has surprised media experts. Some attribute this trend to the politicization of everyday vocabulary which has spread to many parts of the world.
With the advent of globalization, many nations have responded with resistance through the struggle over ownership of cultural identity symbols, many of which are naturally similar or even identical across nations and societies. In July 2008, the Faculty of Business Administration at the Lebanese American University organized a seminar entitled “Food Identity” in cooperation with the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism on the campus of the University of Beirut, confirming the identity of Lebanese foods, especially falafel, foul, hummus, tabbouleh and others.
The world may have for the first time experienced a war over the ownership of cultural identity symbols in international forums. Many French people regard the art of cooking and French cuisine as a symbol their culture. A few years ago, experts from the UN cultural organization UNESCO declared France’s multi-course gastronomical meal, with its rites and presentation, a “world intangible heritage.” The Armenian stone-cross, Spanish flamenco, Chinese acupuncture and Azerbaijani carpets were among the songs, dances and traditional know-how from 31 countries which were also considered for inclusion in the “word intangible heritage list,” which seeks to protect cultural practices in the same way as UNESCO protects sites of cultural value or great natural beauty. Also in France, you can earn a Master’s degree in “food identity,” studying local and traditional food products and how to market them globally. The course also explores the characteristics of cuisines from around the world and how food becomes a distinctive emblem of identity.
FALAFEL, TA’AMYAH, BAJIA
The tangled relationship between food and identity has ignited amusing disputes over the origins of falafel. Falafel is a popular food in Egypt and Sudan (where it is called Ta’amymah), Jordan, Syria, Greece, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (where it is called Bajia). It was most likely invented by Egyptian Copts as a replacement for meat while fasting. According to linguistic interpretations, “falafel” is originally Coptic word, consisting of three parts: “fa”, “la”, and “fel”. According to this historical narrative, falafel spread from Egypt to the rest of the world. As you would expect, this account and linguistic interpretation are subject to rejection and counter narratives.
Falafel restaurants have proliferated at a remarkable rate in Egypt. You can find them in both working class and middle class neighborhoods, as well as in many malls and hotels. Since the second quarter of the 20th century, Cairo has boasted large, luxurious restaurants that serve falafel as the main dish. Its most famous of all is Tabiyi Damietta, which was founded in 1926 and remained up until a few years ago without branches, but it is now a growing chain.
There are also famous Falafel restaurants in Cairo’s city centre, notably: “Felfla” and “Akher Sa’aa” and chains such as “Gad” and “Shabrawy”. Some of these chains have spread to Gulf countries to provide for Egyptian workers, all while evoking their nostalgia for the Egyptian national cuisine.
Jordan probably comes second in terms of the country’s level of consumption of falafel, relative to the size of its population. In 2013, a map of the world was published on the Doghouse website, which signifies each country by its distinctive characteristics, wherein the Kingdom of Jordan was referred to as a falafel. According to a Jordanian statistical study, Jordanians consume three million falafel pieces and 198,000 dishes a day. Falafel, humus and foul form the main breakfast meal for most Jordanian families.
Jordanians’ consumption of falafel, humus and foul is 1174 million pieces and dishes annually, according to figures from the Department of Statistics. According to the study, 1.1 billion falafel pieces and 72.29 million plates of hummus and foul are consumed each year, at an average of 90.57 million pieces per month, while the figures show that 198 thousand plates of humus and foul per day are present on Jordanian dinner tables. This is equivalent to 5.09 million dishes per month. Meanwhile, the number of falafel restaurants exceeds 10,000.
In the aforementioned map, Jordan was not the only country referred to with a symbol from the kitchen. The Kingdom of Morocco was referred to with their most popular dish, couscous. Turkey’s symbol was an apricot, while the symbol for Greece was olive oil.
Before former US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel in 2013, it was announced that a banquet of Jewish food would be prepared for the President which would include falafel. The announcement shook the world, beginning a new chapter of the battle over the origins of falafel that has spanned over many years.
After an Israeli chef in New York City prepared what he called the world’s largest falafel, Lebanon announced in May 2010 its willingness to make the world’s largest falafel paste. With 5 tons of falafel paste they produced 130,000 falafel pieces. This came after having set a record for the largest humus dish in the world, with a weight of 10,452 kilograms. As the conflict over falafel escalated, Arab media outlets did not fail to denounce Daniel Shapiro, America’s ambassador to Israel, who said he likes to travel with his wife and three daughters to Tel Aviv to eat falafel sandwiches. In an extension of the conflict to Western capitals, it is noted that there is a street in Paris called De Rose which has a large Jewish population that is full of falafel restaurants that claim to serve Jewish cuisine.
GLOBALIZATION OF FALAFEL
Of all the dishes in oriental cuisine, falafel benefitted the most from globalization. It proved to be a meal capable of satisfying the taste buds of different peoples. In America, for example, the first Arab restaurants opened in Philidelphia with the objective of catering to the Arab diaspora. Later, the demand for these meals increased which made competition between these restaurants escalate leading to kiosks popping up on university campuses and main roads. The turnout was great from all sides.
Professor Essam Sulaiman Al-Mousa tells a funny and symbolic anecdote about the relevance of the falafel to the image of Arabs in American society. An American woman was upset during her campaign for parliamentary elections when she discovered that some American schools were offering falafel for students. She demanded in one of the TV shows that they stop. But why? Because the Falafel, she explained, has a delicious taste and she is afraid that if the students find out about its Arab origins, their negative perception of Arabs might change.
In the next phase of the globalization of falafel, ‘Just Falafel’ opened its first branch in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The fast food outlet served three types of falafel sandwiches; traditional, Greek and Indian. Years later, the company introduced ten different global variations, including a “Japanese style.” It then spread to Covent Garden in London, and hopes to open around 20 branches throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
New York City is a Mecca for This Middle-Eastern Specialty
by Joe DiStefano*
The first time I ate falafel it was formed by the hands of one Mamoun Chater, a Syrian immigrant whose West Village hole in the wall near New York University lays claim to being the first of its kind in New York City. Mamoun’s Falafel opened its doors in 1971. I have a distinct memory of eating there with my older brothers. I must have been about 10. We walked into the back of the narrow shop on MacDougal Street. “The counter guy’s kind of gruff, but it’s all part of the experience,” my brother, John said. “Just tell him you want a falafel with hot sauce and tahini.”
And what an experience biting into the crunchy herbaceous morsels was. As Middle Eastern music played in the background I felt transported. I’d never tasted anything like it. Nutty creamy tahini and fiery hot sauce rounded out the flavor explosion in a pita.
“Though there have been Arab Christians in the city since the early 1800’s who were doubtlessly eating falafel,” longtime New York City food writer Robert Sietsema says it was Mamoun’s that kicked off the falafel craze in New York City. “It spawned many imitators and made falafel a standard meal for ethnic-food seekers, vegetarians, and the vegetable-friendly.”
Middle Eastern music still plays in Mamoun’s, but sadly the falafel sandwich is not what it used to be. While it’s tasty and cheap at $ 3, the pita is mostly filled with lettuce. That said the hot sauce is just as fiery as I remember. A far better choice in the West Village is Taim, which serves a gourmet take on Israeli falafel.
“Falafel became part of the counter culture food,” notes Rozanne Gold, renowned chef, author and international food and restaurant consultant. “It was cheap food, it was a little bit exotic and it felt political somehow,” she adds noting that one of her favorite places to eat falafel was on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village. In the 90s St. Mark’s Place—the neighborhood’s Main Street—and the environs surrounding Tompkins Square Park were still peppered with Middle Eastern restaurants. The price of a falafel sandwich in a pita hovered around $ 2.50. It was a default meal, whenever I found myself in the neighborhood. One of my favorites, Cinderella Falafel, which is now closed, served a signature $ 5.50 sandwich as long as my forearm. It ate like a greatest hits of Middle Eastern vegetarian cuisine packing falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, chickpeas, lettuce, tomato, onion, and tahini sauce into a Lavash wrap.
As of this writing there are more than 700 eateries—ranging from humble carts and trucks to white table cloth establishments like Taboon where one can tuck into an $ 11 “deconstructed falafel” served with potato confit, pita crepe, amba, and tahini imported from Nablus—in New York City that serve the classic Middle Eastern street food. One street vendor Fares “Freddy” Zeidaies—the King of Falafel & Shawarma—has done so well for himself that he began selling his falafel (in the form of a mix and pre-fried) in local supermarkets this fall. The former cab driver is even looking at opening several restaurants in Chicago where fast-food chain Subway sells its own take on falafel.
Back when he opened his cart in 2002, a falafel sandwich fetched $ 2 and the chickpeas, which are the backbone of his Palestinian-style falafel, ran 25 cents a pound. And the imported sesame paste for making tahini sauce, which used to be $ 30 is now $ 100. So the price of that sandwich has risen to $ 4. “American farmers who used to plant tobacco now plant chickpeas,” Zeidaies says pointing out the popularity of hummus in the States.
Zeidaies says it’s tough to turn a profit without also selling other items like shawarma, unless you happen to be so lucky that you can sell 1,000 or 2,000 sandwiches. “It’s gotta be like around a college and you’re the only one in there and everybody’s eating falafel,” he says. This of course is precisely the situation Mamoun’s Falafel found itself in when it opened 42 years ago a falafel ball’s throw away from the campus of New York University.
When I was first out of college in the mid 90s my roommates and I lived in an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was often filled with the aroma of marijuana smoke. Weekly, sometimes daily, outings to Mr. Falafel were a regular part of our post-smoking munchies. Aladin Habib, an Egyptian, opened the restaurant in 1982. Back then when we were tucking into combination platters I had no idea that his falafel contained both fava beans and chickpeas. All I knew about falafel was that they were good—crunchy, nutty, and filling—and cheap. Once I even tried to make my own falafel with a mix bought from a supermarket. I seem to remember adding just water to the powder, resulting in sticky little balls that I dropped into the hot oil. The dry brown orbs were terrible. It was the first and last time I tried to make falafel. My tahini, however, made with sesame paste purchased from Sahadi’s in downtown Brooklyn, was quite excellent.
Ali el-Sayed, the larger than life chef-owner of Kabab Café in Astoria, Queens, would be appalled by my leaden falafel balls. “Falafel is sort of like fritters,” the Egyptian born Ali tells me over lunch, “It’s like a soufflé it has to be fluffy. It has to have some air inside.” The first falafel he served me on a blustery December day as part of a $ 20 three-course tasting are slightly larger than quail eggs. They are crunchy on the outside, studded with spices, and absolutely revelatory in their lightness.
And, like most of my favorite falafel they are green. “Egyptians, they add a lot of herbs and spice to their falafel,” Ali points out, “while everybody else in the Middle East they make it simple straightforward.” Parsley coriander, dill leek, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and touch of cinnamon are just some of the herbs and spices Ali uses to flavor his falafel.
My first ever fluffy falafel was followed by few sesame studded ovoids that have tahini mixed into the batter. The nutty falafel were served with a generous slick of tahini for dipping. And then came what to date is the best falafel I have ever had in a restaurant. A single large specimen studded with sesame seeds served with roasted eggplant. It was not just a big falafel but rather a stuffed falafel. Inside was a tasty mix of sautéed onions and shatta, a spicy Egyptian pepper sauce.
“No, no you can have this in Egypt all over,”Ali responds when asked whether he created the stuffed falafel. He is quick to point out though that creativity in falafel can go too far. He decries a lobster and falafel dish that Marcus Samuelsson—a chef whose cooking is better known for Swedish, Ethiopian, and Japanese influences than Middle Eastern ones—once created. “It just doesn’t go together,” he said.
Whether it goes together or not, the reality of falafel in New York City is that it’s been embraced by many cultures. There’s even a Korean food truck called Kimchi Taco that serves a tofu edamame falafel taco dressed with kimchi-infused refried beans and the Mexican condiment pico de gallo.
Up until the early 1980s street food in New York City served from carts was dominated by a holy trinity of foods—hot dogs, knishes, and pretzels. “Falafel was pretty exotic. It wasn’t part of the street food culture,” says Gold.
These days hot dogs, knishes, and pretzels are fare for tourists. The staple street food for New York City natives is chicken (or lamb and rice) as served by legions of halal vendors that can be found everywhere from Midtown Manhattan to the Chinatown of Flushing, Queens. And like the Israelis did so many years ago, these vendors have adopted falafel as their own.
When I approach Sammy’s Halal in Jackson Heights, Queens, and ask for falafel they tell me to go to the next cart over, which is owned by the same outfit. I order a falafel over rice platter and watch in horror as the guy starts to smash pre-fried balls against the flat-top and chop them up with a mixture of cilantro and onions.
“It’s tastier this way,” he says when I question him. “This has no flavor,” he says handing me an unsmashed falafel ball. It is dry and generic lacking any of the wonderful herbaceous nuttiness that is the hallmark of good falafel. It’s still better than the rock hard falafel balls I made that one time. Topped with white sauce, hot sauce, and a chutney like green sauce the falafel platter is served over basmati rice shot through with whole cloves and other aromatic spices. It tastes more South Asian than Middle Eastern, fusion falafel if you will.
In Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, home to several Israeli restaurants that serve falafel sandwiches with vast complimentary salad bars that run to 15 items I find the ultimate New York City street food adaptation of the classic Middle Eastern street food: falafel pizza.
“Is that what I think it is?” I ask the guy behind counter at Benjy’s Kosher Pizza Dairy restaurant and Sushi Bar, as I stare in awe at a slice of New York City pizza gilded with six falafel balls. “Yes, falafel pizza, $ 3.25,” he responds.
Instead of my standard pizza toppings of crushed red pepper and garlic powder I ask for tahini and hot sauce. It is messy, salty, nutty, crunchy, cheesy and spicy, exactly what an amalgam of Middle Eastern and New York city street food should be. If there was any doubt in mind as to whether falafel is integrated into the culinary culture of New York City it is snuffed out by eating this slice of pizza.
* Queens-based food writer and culinary tour guide Joe DiStefano has been exploring the borough’s diverse global cuisines for more than a decade. An intrepid eater and explorer he’s widely recognized as a go-to source on the borough’s rich tapestry of cuisines and cultures. He founded the website, Chopsticks + Marrow, where he blogs about food in Queens and beyond, in late 2012. DiStefano writes for the quarterly magazine Edible Queens and was the editor and founder of its food blog, World’s Fare. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, as well as numerous blogs and websites, including Gourmet and Serious Eats New York.