It’s been 20 years since my first trip to Israel, when three generations of my family hopped aboard an El Al plane to visit my youngest daughter, who was studying at Yeshiva Neve Yerushalayim.
I remember choking up when we stood on a certain hill looking out over the sacred city, feeling both saddened and giddy as I left a note in a crevice at the Western Wall, watching bar mitzvah boys praying with their parents, and then later, feeling elated as I climbed all the way to the top of the majestic Masada, floated on my back, in the salty Dead Sea and purchased a painting in the magical city of Safed.
It was a historic, memorable bus tour all over the country with my mom, dad and daughters, filled with as much politics as pleasure, with a massive dose of enlightenment thrown in. But the funny thing is that, years later, what we reminisce about the most is an unremarkable stop that our driver insisted on making, even though it was 20 kilometres out of his way, because he just had to show us something.
It still brings an ironic giggle and a sigh when one of us says, “Remember that falafel stand in the middle of the desert, just to the left of nowhere? It was the best! That sesame sauce. And those pickles – I can still taste it.”
The inevitable responses: “Why can’t we go there again?”
“Because we won’t be able to find it.”
“Come on, it was right outside of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was on the way to Haifa.”
“No, we were going to the Dead Sea.” And so it goes…
Wherever it was, what we do remember is that the pita was steaming fresh, the falafel had a slight crunch and then melted in your mouth, the pickles had just the right amount of burn, the tomatoes were sweet as the summer, the cucumbers were crunchy for days, and the techinah dressing – I kept going back to that glass pitcher, drowning my falafel in that addictive sesame flavour, pouring out a third helping, then a fourth. I couldn’t get enough. I don’t know if it was the best meal we had in Israel but it was the most indelible.
The bad news is that we were on an organic bus trip and our kindly driver seems to have disappeared, so that even though, on subsequent trips – both in reality and in our minds – we’ve tried retracing our steps to that stand, it’s been to no avail.
The good news is that because we all fell in love with the ubiquitous street snack, I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to recreate those flavours, and in the process, come to realize there is no dish as much fun to make. There are umpteen condiments you can pack into a pita, most of which begin with the word “Israeli,” and everybody, from my four-year-old granddaughter to her 94-year-old great-grandparents, loves to eat falafels. Falafels feel like family. They feel like our homeland, Israel. And when we eat them, we always feel as though we’re celebrating and, at the same time, appreciating our culture and heritage.
Adapted from Chef Ariel Kars and co-owner Patric Felsenstein, Naomi Grill, Madrid, Spain. Sautéed mushrooms may be substituted for the meat.
2 cups dried chickpeas
1 cup sesame tahini (sesame paste)
5 cloves garlic, halved
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. lemon salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 lb. baby lamb chops, 1st or 2nd cut, sliced
2 medium red onions, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. sumac (fruit-based Israeli spice)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. pine nuts
1 cup flat-leafed parsley
1 tsp. red chili pepper flakes
1 tbsp. olive or more if needed
To make the hummus, sift through chick peas, rinsing well and discarding pebbles or broken or discoloured peas. In a large bowl, soak peas for 8 hours or overnight. Rinse and place them in a heavy soup pan with 2 quarts of water. Bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours or until very tender. Drain well, reserving cooking liquid. Cool slightly.
Grind cooked peas, garlic, tahini and spices in food processor. Add about 1 cup water a little at a time, as needed and blend until very creamy.
To make meat, marinate meat with onions, spices, pine nuts and olive oil and let sit overnight. Sauté meat until tender.
To serve, spoon hummus onto a serving plate, spreading it so that the edges are thicker than the centre. Scoop out a circle in the centre. Place meat in centre, sprinkle with parsley and pepper flakes. Drizzle with olive oil. Serves 6.
From David Dahan, owner of Dahan Catering, Rockville, Md.
This is the traditional way falafel is made in Israel.
1 cup dried chickpeas or 1 16-oz. can chickpeas, cooked and drained
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley or cilantro or a mixture of both
1 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. cumin
2 tbsp. flour
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil for frying
In a large bowl combine chickpeas, garlic, onion, coriander, cumin, salt, pepper and flour. Put beans in a food processor, pulsing until it becomes a thick paste. Form into small balls, about the size of a walnut, about 1-1/2 in. in diameter. Flatten slightly. In a large, deep frying pan heat about 2 inches of oil to medium hot, about 350. Deep fry a few at a time until golden brown, about 5 to7 minutes, turning over once. Serve warm. Makes 12 to 16 falafel balls and will serve 4 to 5 people.
1 cup tahini (sesame paste)
juice of 1 to 2 lemons
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp. paprika
2 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
Pour tahini into a bowl and very gradually beat in the lemon juice and enough water to make a pale, thick cream. Keep beating. It will thicken into grainy lumps at first, before it blends into a thin cream. Add garlic and salt to taste. To use as a dip, garnish with paprika and the parsley. To use as a dressing, beat in more water until it reaches the consistency of a light cream.
Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden (Knopf)
According to Roden, this is one of the wholly Israeli foods, born as part of the famous kibbutz breakfasts. For the bar mitzvah party, start with the 3 staple ingredients – tomato, cucumber and Bermuda onions – and then set out additional vegetables for guests to pick and choose. Favourites include radishes, red and green peppers, scallions, bibb lettuce, carrots, flat-leafed parsley. Serves 6 to 8
2 cups ripe chopped tomatoes
2 cups chopped cucumber
1 cup chopped Bermuda onions
3 tbsp. flat-leafed parsley
5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tsp.cumin (optional)
1 to 2 tsp. coriander (optional)
juice of 1 to 2 lemons
salt and pepper
Put the vegetables into a bowl. Just before serving, dress the salad with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.