According to new research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Professor Shaul Stampfer, who teaches Soviet and East European Jewry at the school’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, bagels and falafel have more in common than just being loved by Jews around the Diaspora and Israel.
In fact, the two foods apparently have strikingly similar histories as well.
As published in Jews and Their Foodways — Studies in Contemporary Jewry (Oxford University Press), Stampfer’s findings show that bagels and falafel are both Jewish foods, but not religious. Both began as street foods and both, respectfully, make up one third of a complete package: falafel, with pita and salad; bagels, with cream cheese and lox, of course.
Additionally, just as a bagel with lox and cream cheese is a staple within North American Jewish culture, similarly, falafel is a staple of Israeli-Jewish culture.
Stampfer writes that “the bagel and falafel attest to a community’s desire to integrate into the surrounding society, while at the same time maintaining a distinct cultural or ethnic identity. When immigrant communities abandon national traits like language, they can use other identifiers, like iconic foods, to maintain differences.”
Just as the bagel began as an Eastern European pretzel of sorts, the falafel is also an adopted Jewish stable, which began in India as the fried chick pea ball before arriving in the Middle East.
Coincidentally, the tomato was introduced to the Middle East at the same time that oil became inexpensive, says Stampfer, and was used as the main component of a salad, along with cucumber. Consequently, the salad, served in pita bread alongside falafel (eventually hummus and tahini would be thrown into the mix as well), became the quintessential Israeli street food of the 20th century.
“The story of these two foods demonstrates the complex and often contradictory ways in which ‘ordinary’ people tried to come to grips with very new circumstances,” writes Stampfer.