Falafel is Israel’s national dish; the crispy balls of fried chickpeas and spices are sold on street corners around the country and provide a quick, nutritious and affordable meal to Israelis and tourists every day. Here are six facts about Israel’s favorite food.

Ancient Origins

Nobody knows for sure where falafel originated. Some food historians theorize that it originated in ancient Egypt; some ancient Egyptian paintings seem to depict people frying a ball-like food. Others point to India where chickpeas are popular and deep frying is a common mode of food preparation. Turkish and Arab traders likely brought the dish westward into the Middle East.

The first instance of frying dough made from dried beans was recorded as a meal in Medieval Egypt, where it was enjoyed by Copts, a Christian ethnic group who at times rejected meat and adhered to a vegan diet. They would form white fava beans into balls and fry them, calling the tasty food tayima, which means “nourishment” in Arabic. Yemenite and North African cooks made fried balls out of chickpeas instead of fava beans, and called these filfil which means both “fluffy” and also “peppers” in Arabic. These were often served as street food, wrapped in paper from kiosks serving hungry passersby.

In 1949 and 1950, Operation Magic Carpet transported about 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel, and it was then that falafel as we know it was born. Yemenites quickly set up falafel businesses in Israel and they introduced a new innovation, serving the crispy fried balls in fluffy pita bread.

Healthy Snack

A typical portion of about three falafel balls can provide over a quarter of our daily recommended fiber. That’s the conclusion of Dr. Peter Zahradka, principal investigator in molecular physiology at the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine at St. Boniface Hospital in Winepeg. “Our own research has shown that legumes like chickpeas can actually improve the function of our blood vessels. This makes falafel potentially a very good way of reducing the risk of heart disease, especially if the fat content is kept low through baking.”

Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health agrees: “Imagine falafel with a Middle Eastern salad replacing meatballs and spaghetti made with white flour.” Falafel are rich with plant protein, he explains, about 2gm per ball, and that makes them a healthy substitute for high cholesterol meat. A typical falafel portion contains about 350 calories. When combined with salad and pita, it’s a low-calorie, healthy and filling meal.

Falafel Wars

Even though Jews have been eating falafel for hundreds of years, Israel is sometimes accused of “stealing” falafel as a national dish. For some, Israel’s national food isn’t a cuisine to be enjoyed and celebrated, but one more item to complain about in the Jewish state.

That was the case in 2002, when the Hillel at Concordia University in Montreal served falafel at an orientation week event – and pro-Palestinian students complained. “Cultural theft” was the accusation hurled at Hillel by a student pro-Palestinian group, which somehow failed to see that while falafel might be popular in Arab countries, it’s a favorite treat in Israel too. In 2014, when the University of Chicago Friends of Israel hosted an Israeli Independence Day party, they naturally served falafel, prompting a bitter protest from Students for Justice in Palestine: “The event presented falafel as an Israeli dish” they complained.

“We are talking about a brutal attack,” declared Palestinian official television in 2018, while showing images of cooks preparing traditional foods such as falafel and lamenting that Israelis eat it too. “Cultural genocide” was the verdict of James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute, after food blogger Rachel Ray tweeted about Israeli falafel in 2017. Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialist Association, even threatened to sue Israel for violating food copyright in 2008: he bizarrely claimed that falafel was a Lebanese trademark.

The Falafel Index

The Economist magazine invented the “Big Mac Index” in 1986 to measure the typical purchasing power in different countries: assessing how expensive a Big Mac was would give an idea of the purchasing ability of a typical family. That might work in the West, but in the Middle East, it’s falafel sandwiches, not Big Macs, that are popular. To remedy this, the London-based Majalla Arabic magazine invented the Falafel Index, measuring how much a typical sandwich costs in local currency.

According to the Falafel Index, falafel in Israel is relatively pricey: a fully loaded sandwich can set you back as much as $5. That’s on a par with other wealthy Middle Eastern locations such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

World’s Largest Falafel

Israeli and Lebanese chefs have vied with each other to produce the world’s largest falafel ball. In 2010, a New York based Israeli chef used thousands of chickpeas and 40 liters of oil to fry the world’s largest falafel ball: it weighed 10.9 kg. and had a circumference of over a meter. Later that year, Lebanese Chef Ramzi Choueiri and the students of Al Kafaat University in Lebanon set a world record, cooking the largest amount of falafel balls: 5,173 kg in total. (They also recaptured the world record for the largest plate of hummus at the same time, beating Israel’s 2010 record, which in turn had beaten Lebanon’s 2009 world record.)

The following year chefs Dawn and Dan Walker set a new record, creating a 52.8 lb, 12.5 inch high falafel ball at the Santa Clarita Valley Jewish Food and Cultural Festival near Los Angeles. (They barbecued the ball instead of frying it: the falafel ball was so large it took 8 hours to cook.)

Israeli Falafel Style

Israel has been called a culinary melting pot. With Jews from over a hundred countries calling the country home, Israeli cuisine is a wonderful mix of national flavors and techniques. That holds true for falafel too. In Israel, falafel is typically served in a Middle Eastern pita bread pocket, topped with salad and hummus – as well as German sauerkraut, Iraqi fried eggplant, Indian pickled mango sauce, Yemeni hot sauce, and French fries. The result is uniquely Israeli – and utterly delicious.