In the U.S., it’s hot dogs. In India, it’s samosas. In Europe, it’s doners.
Wait, what? Europe, doners? Doners are middle-eastern! Europe has waffles, fish-and-chips, gelato, why should doners have leapt their way up to be the ubiquitous continental street food?
Surely there are several geopolitical threads coming together to form one very long-winded answer, but I just say: because they taste good. Spiced meat on a spit with tangy, garlicky yogurt sauce, bright cucumbers or salty pickles, sunny tomatoes, sometimes a few french fries too, all tucked into a soft warm pita, and the best part is, you don’t need a fork. I ask you, is anything closer to heaven?
Well, yeah. Use falafel instead! Chickpeas and bulgur buzzed up, loaded with garlic and spices, and pan-fried to golden bliss. This is one of those things that my parents weren’t much for, so I grew up hearing that they were greasy little wheat bombs. When they were served to me for the first time in high school, I was surprised that they weren’t awful, but was not yet won over. In college, though, I got a good one, and then, only then, did I understand. They’ve got to be delicate on the inside, crisp on the outside. Can’t just dump in a bunch of grains and deep-fry it: you gotta have something green in there, gotta have good spices. (And don’t forget the garlic.) Only then can you achieve falafel happiness.
For years I’ve been using Crescent Dragonwagon’s recipe for Neo-Traditional Falafel from her book Passionate Vegetarian, a 1000+ page cookbook that I plan on hauling around with me until it falls apart. (I did draw the line at lugging it across the ocean, however, and have been scraping by on the few recipes from it that I copied before I left. This is not to say that I did not bring her Dairy Hollow Soup and Bread along for the ride. Because I did.) I made a couple of amendments. I used spinach instead of the parsley she calls for, because that’s what I had; I had run out of the 1/2 cup breadcrumbs she uses and so threw in half that amount of wheat germ; and although she bakes hers, I cannot betray having grown up in the South: why bake when you can fry?
I also didn’t have any pita bread around, so I prettied them up instead by putting them on a little bed of cabbage and arranging the appropriate accessories. My new favorite thing is a yogurt sauce from my friend Kate, who keeps trying to proclaim herself a disaster in the kitchen but who so far has not proven herself to be one. You can make it even better by using homemade mayonnaise, which is the easiest thing ever. (But that’s another entry.) Here I also topped it off with a dollop of lutenitsa, a Balkan red bell pepper ketchup, but you could use some chopped up roasted red peppers instead. This summer I’d really like to make some of my own lutenitsa, and rest assured I’ll be posting the recipe.
makes about 12
1/4 cup bulgur
1/2 cup boiling water
2 cups presoaked chickpeas
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of chili flakes
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh spinach
1/4 cup wheat germ
3-4 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil, plus more for frying
Kate’s super secret sauce (recipe follows)
finely sliced cabbage
lutenitsa or roasted red pepper
Put bulgur in a bowl, add boiling water, cover, and let sit for about 20 minutes, at which time the bulgur should be soft. Drain any excess water.
In the food processor combine chickpeas, garlic, egg, salt, cumin, black pepper, turmeric, coriander, chili flakes, spinach, and wheat germ. Buzz it all together while adding oil through the tube. Pause as necessary to scrape down sides, and stop when you’ve got everything well pureed together. Add this mixture to the bulgur and mix well. You can refrigerate this if you like – and it’s not a bad idea, if you want to give the flavors time to meld, or if you want to make this ahead of time to fry up later – or you can cook ’em now: heat 2-3 tablespoons oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Form mixture into 1/4-cup patties. (I used a 1/4 cup measure as a mold.) Fry on both sides until golden brown, about 3 minutes each side. Serve with sides.
Kate’s Super Secret Sauce
makes about 3/4 cup
2/3 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
pinch chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried savory
salt and grond black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve. Good with doners, falafels, and as a dip for hunks of bread.
Leftovers Serve ’em with just a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and more pickles. I know, it sounds like a pregnancy craving from Berkeley, but you’ll thank me soon enough.