“Wait. You’re telling me that you have never – NEVER! – eaten falafel?” he exclaimed, narrowly missing the turning onto Boulevard Rothchild as we made our way to dinner one impossibly hot and humid evening in downtown Tel Aviv. “No!” I replied, “I have never – NEVER! – eaten falafel!“. He looked at me with that look he has; the one that asks how have you lived this long with such ignorance? He was then – and still is – one of my favourite people in the world for I love people who speak frankly and who go out of their way to address my shortcomings. The very next day I received an invitation to join him at the wondrous Carmel Market – Shuk Ha’Carmel – where all life was laid out for us to savour. Hemp sacks overflowing with dried fruit and nuts; small mountains of ultra-fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs; tiny kiosks housing spice masters, street hawkers, bakers, florists, fishermen and artisan makers of sweet treats decorated with pistachio nuts and dried rose petals. And then there’s the falafel sellers serving up crispy little bites of heaven stuffed in fluffy just-baked bread adorned with finely chopped salad drizzled with tahini sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice. My friend had been brought here as a child and there I was, a veritable child myself in respect of my knowledge of Israeli cuisine at that time, tasting it all for the first time. I will never forget that moment as the deep umami flavours came to life in my mouth; I laughed, he laughed – I had now eaten falafel, my life was complete; in fact, my life had only just started. This recipe is for a version that I love to make in the summer when peas are fresh and I yearn for something a little lighter than the traditional falafel sold throughout the Middle East.
400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
100g fresh peas, shelled and blanched (you can also use frozen peas, defrosted)
Half a red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
Juice of half a lemon
30g fresh mint
1.5 tsp ground cumin
A generous pinch of chilli flakes
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp plain flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
To serve, a handful of rocket, chopped dill and pomegranate arils (optional)
For the sauce:
4 tbsp light tahini
1 lemon, juiced
How I make it
With the exception of the vegetable oil, mint, salt and pepper, place all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz together until the mixture is mixed well but not mashed (you want to be able to taste the individual ingredients). Add a little water to loosen the mixture off a little, but not too much! Add the mint and pulse a couple of times. Season to your taste.
Wet your hands and shape the mixture into medium-sized balls, flattening them a little as you do so. Place on a cool surface.
In a large frying pan, heat 1cm of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add around four patties to the plan flattening them a little more with the back of a spatula. Allow them to cook until they are golden brown on the underside and then gently turn them over and cook on the other side. Remove from the pan and lay on a plate covered with kitchen roll. Repeat the process until all the patties are cooked, adding more oil as you go.
To make the sauce, simply mix the tahini with the lemon juice and add enough warm water to get it to your desired consistency.
If using, pile the rocket on a pretty plate and place the falafels on top. Drizzle with the tahini and lemon sauce, and garnish with the dill and pomegranate arils.
For a mezze feast to share with friends, serve your falafel at room temperature alongside a bowl of garlicky hummus, some lemon and mint-infused labneh, a light tahini and lemon sauce, some lightly pickled chopped red cabbage, lemon wedges and a freshly baked flatbreads sprinkled with sesame and nigella seeds.