I first had falafel in Paris in the 1980’s when Cathy, wonderfully glamorously, lived there. We used to visit a take-away place in the cool area of la Mairie and get the now familiar pitta bread stuffed with crunchy cold salads and hot falafel, freshly fried and crispy on the outside, soft and mysteriously spicy on the inside, topped with some creamy and equally mysterious sauce – which I later worked out was tahini. This was long before anyone had opened a falafel bar in the UK. They were exotic and alluring and I felt very well travelled just eating them.
Gung-ho as my family has always been about food, we thought – ‘we can make those!’- and embarked on a few attempts in our kitchen when I was a teenager, using our ancient chip-frier on our even more ancient gas cooker. My memory of this is of infrequent success, mixed with quite a lot of disintegrated chickpea mess floating in the hot oil. We probably had to make do with a lot of salad for our tea on those nights… I’m afraid we gave up after a while.
For years afterwards my experience of falafel was limited to the occasional take away, either drunk at the end of the night in lieu of a kebab, or from a very decent take away place on Old Compton Street when I lived in London. More recently I’ve tried a few packet versions where you just add liquid… they were…well…ok I suppose…
BUT, then along came Yotam Ottolenghi. My experience of both eating and cooking falafel was transformed when I started using Ottolenghi’s recipe in his masterpiece of a book Jerusalem. Not only did they not fall apart, they were more delicious than anything I’d had in from a packet, a cafe, or a take-away – drunk or otherwise.
So here is the recipe that I’m sharing with you. Far be it for me to mess with the legend that is Yotam, but I have to say that I almost double the spices and flavourings, mainly because I don’t make as much mixture as his recipe calls for (there are usually only two of us eating), but I still usually chuck roughly the same quantities of spices that he specifies.
I know, I know, fiddle with an Ottolenghi recipe at your peril, his testing is rigorous and his flavour balancing is unsurpassed. But there it is. I add more flavouring. I can hear the knock on the door from the food police as I write…
- 125g dried chickpeas. Sorry, you can’t use tinned. No sir. I tried. Oh LAAAWD it was a disaster. Only dried will do, soaked in a large bowl of cold water all day. The latest I’ve put them in water is mid morning (11am) and started cooking at 6.30pm (we eat late, around 8-8.30). If it’s lunchtime, it’s really too late my friends, no falafel for you tonight.
- 1 medium onion (about 100g)
- 1 large garlic clove
- a handful/approx 2 tbsp chopped parsley. You can skip this and just use the coriander, but on no account use dried.
- a larger handful/approx 3 tbps chopped fresh coriander. No dried crap etc..
- ¼ tsp chilli powder or flakes
- ¼ tsp cardamom (the black seeds from 6 or 7 pods, husks discarded)
- ¾ tsp cumin
- ½ tsp dried coriander seeds
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 1 tbsp plain flour (or cornflour if you’re gluten free)
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 ½ tbsp water (no more).
NB – you’re going to need an electric blender for this recipe, or a food processor.
So you’ve got your soaked chickpeas. And you didn’t try and funky stuff like cooking them slightly with a bit of bicarb to try to skip the soaking time did you? Well, if you did, I can’t help you when they fall apart in the oil.Crush the garlic, chop the onion fairly well, roughly chop the herbs and mix with the drained chickpeas. Blend the lot, half at a time, which makes it easier. You’ll have to scrape the sides and re-align the contents frequently so the blades can get to all the mixture, you don’t want any large bits of chickpea left. It doesn’t have to be mush, but definitely not too gravelly. In a pestle and mortar or spice grinder put the chilli, cardamom, cumin, coriander seeds and crush/grind. Don’t worry if the coriander seeds don’t pulverise completely, they’re tough little buggers. Add this to the chickpea mixture along with the flour and salt. Swill the blender out with the water and add that too. Mix it all with a spoon. Leave it to sit for an hour if you’ve time. Sometimes I don’t. Shape them with your hands into balls a bit smaller than a golfball, flatten them a bit to make them quicker to cook and them roll them lightly in sesame seeds. I’ve also done a mix of ground up linseeds and hemp seeds when I’d run out of sesame (yes I had hemp and linseed lying around…honest), and I think I almost prefer it to sesame.
FALAFEL ROLLING TIP- the mix is quite delicate, so squish the balls firmly in your palm to compact the mixture in on itself, and use the tips of your fingers to roll them very lightly in the seeds. Don’t be obsessive about covering them entirely.Heat a frying pan, heavy-bottomed if possible, and when it’s hot put in a half centimetre of vegetable oil. Gently and lightly transfer the falafel into the oil, fry them until when you lift one there’s some brown on the underside.Using a fork and a spoon gently flip them over. All this attention to detail stops them coming apart. They become quite hardy once they’re crisped up. They are also delicious:
Serve them with pitta breads, humous, tomato and cucumber salad, and whatever other middle eastern delights you fancy.