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Debating the Levantine origins of the falafel

Falafel Beit el Zaytoun
Mezze platter including falafel at Lebanese restaurant Beit el Zaytoun in London

Falafels are gaining a mainstream following in Europe and can be found in supermarkets, restaurants, takeaways and street-food stalls everywhere. 

In UK cities alone, Go Falafel has grown into a chain with three outlets in Manchester, two in London and one in Liverpool. Dubai’s Operation: Falafel and Israeli pitta chain Miznon have recently opened in London.

The rise in the Middle Eastern patties’ popularity is attributed to increasing interest in vegetarianism and healthy eating – falafels are often served with salad, tahini, hummus, for example.

The fried balls of ground chickpea or fava beans, with added herbs, spices and onion and garlic have long been a staple in the Middle East. 

The Israeli version uses cumin, coriander, paprika, garlic, onion and fresh herbs in the patty and is served in pitta.

As with hummus, there is heated debate over the origins on falafel, with claims it hails from either Lebanon, Palestine, Israel or even Turkey, Greece and Syria – the patty is ubiquitous in all these countries often as part of a mezze platter.

However, several food historians insist its origins in fact lie in Egypt, where it is made from broad beans rather than chickpeas and known as ta’amiya.

One theory is that Coptic Christians would make the patties during Lent, when meat was eschewed, making falafel, perhaps, the original meat substitute. 

In all probability, falafel is comparatively modern. The word only appears in Egyptian literature after the British occupation in 1882.

Some authorities have speculated that British officers, having acquired a taste for fried vegetable croquettes in India, may have asked their Egyptian cooks to prepare a version using local ingredients. 

If evidence is to be believed, the falafel emerged in Alexandria, Egypt’s principal port and home to the largest concentration of British and European troops.