Moist, savory and smooth on the inside with a crispy fried outer crust, falafel could qualify as the earliest version of mouthwatering fast food. From the kitchens and market stalls of North Africa and the Middle East, the little fritters made of mashed chick peas and fava beans gained their cred as street food. Tucked in a pita or wrapped in flatbread for easy take-away, the modest morsels assume flavor profiles you can copy at home with regionally inspired, traditional garnishes.
A smear of hummus helps hold the stuffing inside the pocket of a pita. The smooth puree of chick peas, olive oil and lemon juice can be jazzed up by adding garlic, roasted red peppers and cumin. Hummus made from white beans or red lentils offers an attractive flavor and visual contrast to the falafel. In regions where bold, pungent seasonings are included in the falafel mixture, plain or Greek-style yogurt offers a cooling counterbalance to the spiciness. In some areas, grated cucumber or tahini sauce is mixed with the yogurt before spreading or spooning into the pita.
Tahini gets drizzled over falafel and its accompanying garnishes in many regions where the fried bean patties are a staple. A paste made of ground white sesame seeds, tahini is often thinned with sesame oil or peanut oil so that it flows smoothly over the contents of a flatbread wrap or a pita pocket. From Yemeni culture, green chili paste or Maghrebi harissa, a hot red chili sauce out of North Africa, are toppings for those who enjoy the extra flair of heat.
Israeli salad, featuring chunks of fresh tomato and cucumber mixed with thinly sliced red onion, olive oil and lemon juice, is spooned over falafel throughout much of the Middle East. In American versions of falafel pita sandwiches, the same vegetables are often simply scattered over the falafel without marinating first, along with shredded lettuce. Pickled beets and other vegetables are considered must-have condiments offered by some street vendors and shops, while a sour cucumber pickle spear accompanies falafel sandwiches and wraps offered in certain regions.
Seasonings and Spices
Za'atar could be the secret ingredient that elevates falafel into the realm of the extraordinary. A blend of sumac, salt, toasted sesame seeds and an indigenous green herb that tastes like mixed oregano and thyme, za'atar is sprinkled over just-fried falafel, on flatbread when it is baked or over all the components in a pita stuffed with falafel. Light, fresh flavor is added to cooked falafel in some regions by sprinkling chopped parsley, mint, zesty arugula and other herbs over the finished bean fritters.
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