Your Complete (& Quick) Guide to Falafel

falafel balls with tahini

In this post, you will find out everything there is to know about falafel.

You’ll learn what it is and where it comes from, what it is made of and whether falafel meat is really a thing.

Let’s dive in!

So, what is falafel? What kind of food is it?

Falafel is arguably one of the most popular foods from Middle Eastern cuisine. 

If you’ve heard of hummus, you’ve likely also heard of these deliciously spiced croquettes from the Orient. Often sold as street food, they are easily found in large cities around the world.

Falafel is a type of Oriental croquet that is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The crispy shell of the falafel ranges from golden to brown-green and deep brown. The inside is either a bright green or a soft yellow depending on what you use to prepare the dough.

What is Falafel Meat?

If you’re new to falafel or haven’t tried it before, you might think that it is a type of meat. Although the ball-like appearance is not unlike that of meatballs, common falafel should not contain any meat or animal products.

However, you can often use it as a replacement for meat, and you can frequently find it in vegetarian meals such as burgers as a 100% meat-free alternative.

Falafel Meaning and Spelling

The word Falafel describes specifically the crunchy croquettes (falafel balls) and, at times, refers to the sandwiches that you serve them in.

Sometimes, it is spelled felafel or felafil, but the most common spelling is falafel.

The term itself is related to filfil, meaning pepper in Arabic and pippalī which means long pepper in Sanskrit. It could possibly also come from pha la phel, meaning of many beans in Coptic.

In southern Egypt and Sudan, it is known as ṭaʿmeyya.

Falafel Origin: Where is falafel from?

If you’re curious to know where falafel originates from or where it was invented, there is not much of a clear answer. What is likely, falafel first appeared where fava beans had been grown in large quantities. That is, around the port of Alexandria, Egypt, before spreading throughout the rest of the Middle East. 

As it spread, each country would adapt it the according to their preferences and agricultural availability. Quite a few would go on to claim that they had conceived them.

It wasn’t until the around the 60s that the bite-sized treats were brought to the U.S. by migrants, where they have since become a staple of American cuisine.

Falafel Ingredients: What is Falafel made of?

This slightly controversial dish is a healthy alternative to meat and offers versatility not only to your diet but also your flavor palette. Falafel consists of legumes such as chickpeas or fava beans, herbs, and spices.

The cook decides, of course, what’s in a falafel but the most common falafel ingredients include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Flour
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Cilantro
  • Parsely
  • Cumin
  • Pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Salt
  • Oil

Egyptian vs. Eastern Mediterranean

The two most common ways to prepare falafel are Egyptian and Eastern Mediterranean versions. The Egyptian version uses fava beans combined with chickpeas, bulgur, and spices. The Eastern Mediterranean version uses solely chickpeas that you would flavor with parsley, cilantro, garlic, and cumin.

You can ball or flatten the ground falafel mixture into patties either by hand or with an “aleb” falafel, a special falafel scooper. You can then deep-fry in hot oil for a few minutes until golden brown.

What Does Falafel Taste Like?

Falafel is a savory food similar to savory doughnuts but with an herby, mild flavor and grainy yet soft texture. As the overall taste is relatively gentle, it makes an excellent body to accompanying savory sauces.

The taste or the intensity of flavor depends on the ingredients a falafel contains.

For example, in addition to the base flavor of chickpeas or fava beans, it would taste more spicy or strong when you increase the amount of pepper and herb.

When made with chickpeas, it has a lighter and smoother texture on the inside. If you use fava beans instead, the taste becomes denser and gives a stiffer mouth feel.

Falafel vs. Hummus

While both Middle Eastern foods use chickpeas as the main ingredient, there are great differences in the appearance, taste, preparation – and to a lesser degree – in nutrition between the two.

The Form

The immediate and most noticeable difference between falafel and hummus is in the form they take.

When served alone, you can tell the two easily apart by sight. Hummus is a smoothly ground paste often spread atop a flat plate. Falafel are crispy, deep-fried balls gathered best on crockery with raised edges or contained within a pita pocket.

The Taste

When we take taste into consideration, the two also vary here considerably. 

Hummus has a tangy, garlicky, nutty flavor thanks to containing lemon juice, raw garlic, and tahini. Falafel in comparison, is drier and earthier, best eaten together with the juiciness and crispness of tahini sauce and fresh vegetables.

The Preparation

The preparation of hummus involves grinding cooked chickpeas to a smooth, dense paste together with fresh ingredients and spices. Falafel, in contrast, is made from a spiced, raw chickpeas-and-herb dough which gets cooked through deep-frying.

The Nutritional Value

Although hummus is a complete protein when you serve it with bread, falafel is higher in iron, potassium, vitamin B2, and monounsaturated fat. Hummus is higher in zinc and copper, and not requiring any deep-frying, is lower in saturated fat. 

You can find an in-depth overview of hummus and falafel nutrition in this nutritional comparison here or read more about hummus in the Complete Guide to Hummus here.

How to eat falafel?

You can eat the falafel balls alone as a snack or serve them as a meal by adding ingredients that turn them into a wrap, sandwich, or burger. It is a highly versatile dish that one can serve as any main meal of the day, as a side, or as an appetizer on a mezze platter.

What is a Falafel Wrap?

A falafel wrap is a convenient way to eat falafel balls as the they are less likely to fall apart and leave crumbs when you consume them this way. 

The bread you can use can be a pita bread or a tortilla, but any soft, flatbread would do.

You can pair the balls with hummus or tahini, alongside healthy greens. 

You can also serve it with tabbouleh and foul mudammas as a side. 

Falafel wrap nutrition

1 falafel wrap contains around 630 calories.

1 falafel pita sandwich contains about 238 calories.

Note that calorie content would vary depending on the ingredients used.

What is a Falafel Burger?

Falafel burgers are an incredibly popular veggie burger that can substitute for the common non-vegetarian burger.

As the ingredients in falafel don’t contain gluten or any animal products, the falafel burger is a top choice for those looking to have gluten-free or vegan-friendly comfort food. This is provided that the buns and the rest of the ingredients are also gluten-free and vegan.

If you’re interested in a simple and straight-forward falafel burger recipe, here’s one from Jamie Oliver that is easy to try out.

Falafel burger nutrition

1 serving falafel burger contains about 453 calories.

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