Over the past 40 years, there have been fervent discussions about whether there is an Israeli cuisine, and I sit on the side of those who say yes. It has been a developing idea over years. One thing about which there has been little debate, however, is whether there are Israeli street foods.
On any day, you can walk down the Ben Yehuda Mall or King George Street or through the Machane Yehuda shuk (market), and it’s easy to see Israelis still love their “typical” snack foods – schwarma (rotisserie-grilled turkey with lamb fat, slivered and stuffed into pita), falafel (deep fried chickpea balls), hummus (chickpea dip), techinah (sesame seed paste) and pita (pocket bread).
Chickpeas, which are among the oldest cultivated plants, are native to northern Persia. A staple of peasant cooking and a source of cheap protein, they have been in the diets of Jews of the Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries.
They form the basis of two of Israel’s street foods—hummus which also has tahini – also called techinah – garlic and lemon; and falafel, for which the chickpeas are ground and combined with other ingredients before being formed into balls and deep fried.
Once when I was doing research, I read that falafel originated among the Christian Coptic priests of Egypt, who created the dish to be eaten during Lent when meat could not be eaten. In Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food, she confirms this, calling falafel “one of Egypt’s national dishes.” In Egypt, it is known as ta’amia, which Roden describes as “patties or rissoles made from a dried, white broad bean, splendidly spiced and flavoured, and deep fried in oil.”
Being Egyptian born, she offers the recipe with white broad beans, Spanish onions or spring onions, garlic, parsley, cumin, coriander, baking powder, salt and pepper.
In The Book of Jewish Food, Roden says that Yemenites who came to the Holy Land before 1948 were the first to sell falafel. They made them with chickpeas, sold them in the streets and brought them to the settlements. Then the Romanians started making them, only less spicy. All vendors offer the charif spicy sauces as optional.
Sherry Ansky also writes of this origin in her book The Food of Israel, adding that “the major difference between Egyptian and Israeli falafel is the bean,” referring to the flat white beans that Egyptians use.
She says Arabs introduced falafel to Israel, and the Israelis were the first people to substitute chickpeas for the white beans.
Ansky’s recipe calls for overnight soaking and next-day grinding with onion, garlic, hot red peppers, parsley or cilantro. Then cumin, salt, pepper and baking powder are added. Before the falafel balls are fried, baking soda is added to help the falafel expand.
In The Book of New Israeli Food, Janna Gur writes that “falafel is synonymous with Israeli cuisine and Israel in general,” and is made from fava beans or chickpeas. Her recipe uses ground chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, coriander and small hot green pickled peppers. This mixture is seasoned with cumin, cardamom, salt and pepper. She dissolves baking soda in water and adds it to the batter as well before moistening the falafel tool or ice cream scoop to make balls to fry in hot oil.
Joan Nathan, in The Foods of Israel Today, calls falafel “the ultimate Israeli street food” and says its name could have come from the word, pilpel, for pepper. Egyptians made it with crushed fava beans or fava beans combined with chickpeas and bulgur, Nathan says.
Marlena Spieler calls falafel the “classic Israeli snack food” in her book, Jewish Cooking. She maintains that “the secret to good falafel is using well-soaked but not cooked chickpeas, and not canned chickpeas. Her recipe includes chickpeas, bulgur wheat, onion, garlic, parsley, fresh and ground coriander, baking powder, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, curry powder and whole wheat flour.
Avi Ganor and Ron Maiberg call falafel “the king [of street food] by popular consent” in Taste of Israel. They say when Israel was a newly created state, Israelis took it as their national food and it was “judged by its texture and taste, by the way the crushed chickpeas yielded to the teeth, by whether it was mild and restrained – the tamed Ashkenazi variety, or hot and spicy – the genuine Sephardi kind.”
They claim today it is about quantity not quality and should be served by the vendor himself not taken by the customers like a salad bar.
Their version also starts with overnight soaked chickpeas. The next day includes baking soda, salt, cumin, coriander, onion, parsley, garlic, black pepper, lemon juice and chili pepper.
Ruth Sirkis, the “Julia Child” of Israel, calls falafel “a Middle Eastern specialty the Israelis have adopted wholeheartedly” in her book A Taste of Tradition. Her recipes calls for garbanzo beans, bulgur, dry wheat bread, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, optional hot red pepper, eggs and bread crumbs.
In The Classic Mediterranean Cookbook by Sarah Woodward, Israel scores again. She calls falafel or chickpea fritters “the favourite street food of Israel” and makes them with the overnight soaked chickpeas that the next day are drained and ground with red onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, cayenne, salt, baking powder, with parsley or cilantro added before forming into patties and frying in oil.
In a very old classic cookbook of Israel, Israeli Cookery by Lilian Cornfeld, published in 1962, Cornfeld writes that falafel is high in calories because of the fat, but chickpeas are high in minerals, and rich in vegetable protein and vitamin B.
In The Book of New Israeli Food, Gur writes that schwarma comes from the Turkish word cevirme, meaning “rotating,” and is also known as doner kebab. Traditionally, schwarma is made from lamb, but in Israel, it is made from turkey with lamb fat.
Schwarma is generally slivered off the rotisserie and placed in pita with hummus, techinah, french fries, salad and pickles.
Roden in A Book of Middle Eastern Food also describes doner kebab as a favourite in Turkey, where marinated lamb is threaded and packed with fat squeezed between on a rotating vertical spit that turns automatically over a hot charcoal fire.
In The Foods of Israel Today, Nathan says schwarma, the fast food meat of Israel, is a dish brought by the Turks to Israel. She says the word schwarma means “grilled” in Turkish. Originally the lamb or turkey was marinated overnight, then wrapped in layers around a rotisserie or large spit, covered with mutton fat and roasted on the spit. The cooked slices were then shaved off and served in pita with salads.
“Israelis hold hummus in such high regard that it is rarely made at home. Instead it is savoured – or rather worshipped – at a favourite hummusia,” Gur writes in The Book of New Israeli Food.
In the book, the basics are overnight soaked chickpeas with baking soda added; next day the tahini, lemon juice, crushed garlic and salt are added.
One can also add lemon juice, cumin, salt, chopped hot red pepper, garlic and small hot green pickled peppers. Hummus is spooned onto a plate, tahini is placed in the centre with sauce on top of that, and olive oil and chopped parsley are added as a garnish.
Nathan shares her recipe in The Foods of Israel Today, suggesting overnight soaking of chickpeas followed by next-day cooking, draining and processing with techinah, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin and reserved cooking liquid. She garnishes the hummus with olive oil, some chickpeas, browned pine nuts, paprika or sumac, parsley or cilantro.
Spieler writes in Jewish Cooking that hummus is a classic Middle Eastern dish, and she offers a recipe with chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, cumin, salt and pepper.
In Taste of Israel, Ganor and Maiberg agree that hummus is one of Israel’s national foods because it is “filling, nutritious and cheap” and requires no forks and knives, just “pita bread and an expert wrist.” Their version includes the overnight soaked chickpeas with baking soda, followed by a next-day cooking, then a mashing with some of the cooking liquid and garlic, salt, cumin, tahini and lemon juice.
“A skilled hummus artist can make a perfect crater with a thin film of paste in the middle in one swift, circular movement,” they write. Then olive oil and some chickpeas are placed in the well.
Ansky writes in The Food of Israel that “everybody makes hummus in Israel.” She says it should be made by hand using a mortar or grinder to mash the cooked chickpeas. She cooks hers with onions and garlic, then removes them before adding techinah, garlic, lemon juice and cooking liquid. She tops her version with warm chickpeas, chopped garlic, chopped green pepper and parsley, then pours olive oil on top.
In her book A Taste of Tradition, Sirkis calls hummus “a piquant appetizer, introduced to the nation by Middle Easterners.” She uses soaked overnight garbanzo beans that are cooked the next-day and then ground with lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, tahini and olive oil added. She garnishes with olive oil, parsley, sweet paprika, olives and pickles.
In The Book of Jewish Food, Roden says that like falafel, hummus is “ubiquitous in Israel, and indeed all over the western world.” She soaks the chickpeas overnight; the next day, she boils them with salt, then drains and blends them with cooking water, lemon juice, garlic, tahini and oil. She says some people add cumin to the tahini, and for a Yemenite version, garnish with hot red pepper or zhoug (Yemenite chili relish).