The Ubiquity of Falafel

By J.T.

Before I went to Israel, I read an online discussion about representative street foods of different countries. Doner Kebab, of course, is emblematic of Turkey. Pizza and gelato were both suggested for Italy. Hamburgers for America. And for Israel, falafel. Falafel? I thought. I love falafel, have eaten it for years, but have always thought of it as falling into that broad category we call Middle Eastern food.

Then I went to Israel. If there is one thing I’m sure of after spending nearly a month in this complicated country, it’s that falafel is Israel's most popular street food. It’s found in small shops and stands in every town, no matter how small, and ranges in price between 5 and 18 shekels (about $2-6). Made from a mixture of chickpeas, deep-fried, and stuffed into pita bread with tahini, salad, spicy sauce, it has all the merits of great street food: quick, filling, cheap, and delicious.

 A bridge in Tel Aviv.

A bridge in Tel Aviv.

My surprise at the ubiquity of falafel in Israel is no surprise at all. Israel, I found, is the sort of country that one cannot prepare for by reading news reports, travel forums, or history books. While I knew that military service is required of all young adults, it can be shocking to see teenagers in uniform, carrying their guns with them as they go about their business. This means that I’ve sat near weapon-carrying soldiers on buses, stood in line next to them in grocery stores, and nearly bumped into said guns on busy street corners.

Military service is such a part of life for young people in Israel that those who have completed their service may speak of it nonchalantly. When I told one person I stayed with that I planned on crossing the border in Eilat to Aqaba, Jordan, he said, “Oh, I cleaned up landmines down there once,” as if saying that he once had a girlfriend living down there, or worked at an ice cream shop for a summer.

This same host told me stories of losing his religion after meeting people and being exposed to other ideas while in the military. As much as modern politics are omnipresent in Israel, so are very real religious concerns. My host’s roommate had left his ultra-Orthodox faith, which meant he had to leave his community and family as well. Buses end just before sundown on Fridays and don't start up again until the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is brimming with religion, from ancient sites to living, breathing pilgrims.

Religion and military service collide on Sundays, when members of the military are shuttled back to bases, stopping for cultural excursions along the way. They are taken to places like the Israel museum, or historical sites like Masada, where, legend has it, a few hundred troops held off the Roman army before killing themselves rather than surrendering. They are told that this is the cultural legacy they are trying to protect. The world has been trying to wipe the Jewish people out of existence for nearly 2,000 years, and but they won't let it. They're not wrong, of course.

 The ancient bricks of Masada.

The ancient bricks of Masada.

Our Couchsurfing hosts in Tel Aviv gave us a piece of advice when we first arrived to Israel. "In Israel," they said, "you can do whatever you want until someone yells at you." And it's true! Jaywalk, take cuts, whatever. And if you are truly stepping out of line, someone will take it upon themselves to correct you.

But you know what? This rule doesn't just apply to Israel. It applies to the Middle East in general. Once in Amman, Jordan, we saw a man get out of his car, move a roadblock, and get into an argument with a police officer over it.

Like this rule, other rules found in Israel apply elsewhere in the Middle East. Namely, the ubiquity of Falafel. We found it in Turkey, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt. In fact, Jordanians proudly told me that the world record for biggest falafel was set in Amman, and Egyptians told me that it was invented in Cairo.

Sometimes it feels like Israel exists in its own bubble. Like an ostrich putting its head in the sand, the entire country of Israel refuses to see itself mirrored in the predominantly-Muslim countries around it. The thing that separates Israelis from Palestinians the most is that they don't interact with each other. And since they don't interact with each other, they don't see that, religion aside, they are more the same than not. Arabs and Israelis could both be described as "hot-headed," quick to ignite. They both have a "do-what-you-want" attitude. They both are shrewd negotiators, stubborn, and proud. But they are both some of the most compassionate, generous people on earth. They are the sort of people that you want to sit with over a cup of tea and feel welcomed.

Yet, Israelis go to great lengths to distance themselves from their neighbors. They put up walls, both literal and metaphorical. There's a sign, when you cross from Israel into Palestine, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that Israelis caught on that side of the wall will be killed. When we told one of our hosts that we were going to Bethlehem, he ruefully noted that he couldn't go there. It's only a few miles from his home in Jerusalem, but he'd never seen it.

 The Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem.

The Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem.

I expected to find chicken noodle soup and brisket on restaurant menus, but rather than European Jewish stapels, I found more generally Middle Eastern, hummus, baba ghanouj, fuul, and of course, falafel. Israelis go to such lengths as to call this "Moroccan" or "Yemeni" food, brought over from the historic Jewish populations of those countries.

 Typical Israeli food.

Typical Israeli food.

I wondered, though never asked, if they knew that the rest of the world calls this "Middle Eastern" food.