Israel: pita and falafel
The cuisine of the sun
First broadcast date
For Israelis, the Falafel is what the Pan Bagna is for Nice people,ordinary people’s food.
Claude Robin, assisted by an Israeli woman, prepares a Pita-Falafel, specialty of Israel.
France 3 Méditerranée - Coproduction
- RAI - Coproduction
Credits / Cast
- Robin Claude - Speaker
- Ordines Jacques - Director
- Israël - Centre - Jerusalem
Israël : pitta bread and falafels
A falafel is like a fishcake made of beans and/or chick peas, soaked in water then mixed with herbs and made into balls. The balls are then fried in oil and either eaten as mezze (a collection of dishes to pick at in company) or put inside pitta bread (flat, hollow bread) with raw vegetables and tahini sauce. Probably originating in Egypt the falafel has gradually spread across the Middle East where chick peas replace beans entirely or partially. Today the Egyptian version only has beans, while Palestinians and Israelis use only chick peas, which grow abundantly in their soil. The Lebananese advocate a mixture of the two.
By showing us various key national or regional dishes, the series is a way of discovering the "Cookery of the Sun". In this programme we learn that the felafel is a national Israeli dish. Ex-patriate Israeli's have helped make chick-pea felafels popular in New York and Paris. But over the past few years this assimilation has caused a gastronomic argument echoing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Lebansese and Palestinians blaming the Israelis for kidnapping this recipe for themselves, just as they are said to have done with hummus (a traditional chickpea puree which is copied everywhere, Israelis and Lebanese from time to time trying to make the biggest hummus in the world). The issue is without doubt economic, as it is for the Appellations d'Origine label, but also cultural: the felafel war shows there is nothing anodyne about cooking, on the contrary it is one of the major factors expressing a people's identity.
Even before Israel became a state in 1948, the pioneer Zionists coming across from Russia and Poland in the early 20th century to found the first kibutz (co-operative establishments) wanted to create a puritan and frugal society. As part of that they wanted to get rid of the symbols of their former life in Europe, including alimentary ones, and to connect with their Biblical roots and new local conditions. The Arab villagers (felahin) and Bedouins were seen as perfect models. The new arrivals, particularly the young, found some of their food, such as felafels, very attractive: felafels became the symbol of simple, frugal cooking having the great advantage of being both tasty and cheap. In the same way, after 1948 immigrants from Europe turned their back on the cooking which reminded them of their former life of exile and persecution, in a context of poverty and penury which meant austerity in the kitchen. But it was in the 1950's with the emigration of thousands of Jews from Arab countries, particularly the Yemen, that the felafel came into its own.
The felafel also unifies the amazing diversity of Israeli cooking: relatively new as a country, welcoming people from more that 70 countries, Israel unites its inhabitants with this emblematic dish. Claudia Roden, author of the masterly "Book of Jewish Cooking" writes that "cooking is one of the great cohesive elements in this mixed society, where home cooking is a mosaic acquired from the four corners of the world – where Eastern European food is seen as "Jewish" and the rest as "ethnic", while Arab street food (felafel, humus, babaghanouzh, shakshouka and Moroccan cigars) is considered Israeli." So over time the felafel has become a street classic in Israel, with local differences in the choice of accompaniments, pickles, spices (for example the Moroccan harissa shown in this extract): the felafel as "melting pot", like the whole of Israeli society.
RODEN Claudia, Le livre de la cuisine juive, Flammarion, 2012 (nouvelle édition).
Weitzman Yonathan / BluePress, « Israël / Palestine : Le falafel, boulette de la discorde », Le Monde, 3 septembre 2010.
RAVIV Yael, « Falafel: A National Icon », Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer 2003), pp. 20-25, University of California Press.