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An age-old mainstay of fast street food in virtually every Arabic-speaking and Eastern Mediterranean country, falafel is now firmly established in the West. Traditionally, small patties based on minced ful (dried broad beans) or on chickpeas are served direct from a vat of boiling oil into warm bread together with fresh salad ingredients. Classic falafel are ball-shaped, sometimes slightly flattened, but modern falafel shapers make shallow cylinders, like small, thick hamburger shapes. Crisp and golden brown on the outside, warm and pale greenish on the inside, redolent with a gentle flavouring of herbs and spices, they are vegetarian food at its greatest.
Super-traditionalists, especially those from Alexandria in Egypt, say falafel should be made only with dried ful. Strange to European thought, falafel are made there with beans that are soaked overnight but not cooked. This ensures a slight texture, which is often missing from other versions.
In the UK, chickpeas are the most common basis. Parsley, coriander leaf, cumin, coriander seeds and green (spring) onion are the other most common ingredients. Not unexpectedly, creative Westerners now add such other ingredients as olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Crumbled feta cheese is an excellent addition.
Although a perfect picnic or anytime snack when cold, falafel are very much better when warm.
The choice of accompanying sauces is enormous. Houmous or tahini, of course, but tomato sauces, yoghurt-based sauces, mayonnaise sauces, smoky barbecue sauces, chilli-hot sauces and squeezes of lemon or lime juice are all good.
See how to make falafel with our step-by-step guide.
Find more recipes in our falafel recipe collection.
The raw minced mixture is sometimes allowed to rest to integrate the flavours and textures, ideally refrigerated. Use the uncooked mixture within a day: cooked, refrigerated falafel should be eaten within three days. Bought ones should be kept refrigerated and heated and eaten strictly according to printed instructions.
If you use raw or canned chickpeas they are simple to make and to enjoy at home. Dried ful – the only beans native to the Western world – are increasingly available online and in Middle Eastern shops.
Ready-made falafel are widely offered commercially in the UK. The ingredients, size and variety of shapes made and suggested are infinite.