It would have been traditionally a very slow week for most falafel shops in Cairo. It was Eid Al-Adha, when Muslims go on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca and the majority who are not on the holy procession celebrate by slaughtering sheep and cows and indulge in a high carnivorous moment. Usually, Coptic and other Christians take part by going for high animal protein dishes that are often off their menu due to long months of either vegetarian or totally vegan fasts.
Not this year, however. For those Coptic Christians, who are the vast majority of Egypt’s Christians today, last week was the one to observe one of the many vegetarian fasts: Virgin Mary fast.
This year, the two-week fast, which is designed to celebrate the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, started on 7 August. This was five days before the day of Eid on 11 August.
This coincidence of the calendar worked in favour of Hassan, a falafel maker/seller who works his fried golden brown vegan fritters off a small stove in Ain Shams, east of Cairo.
Sanabel El sham- Photos by : Sherif Sonbol
“The week before Eid is usually when many Muslims observe [a Ramadan-like] fast, and consequently most people go for a cooked meal by sunset. Then comes the week of Eid when everyone is eating meat either because they buy it or because they receive it from the rich,” Hassan said. So, usually it is a very slow time of business for people like Hassan and bigger falafel stores and restaurants.
This year, however, Hassan did not have to close shop for a sequence of two weeks for fear of close-to-zero sales. The Coptic population observing the fast provided him with sufficient business before Eid. He then planned to close business for three days and resume again towards the end of the holiday week.
As a matter of fact, Hassan said, due to the economic situation, in terms of prices of food and everything else, more people seem to opt for falafel and other inexpensive food items for their sunset break of fast.
Like other falafel sellers in the capital, Hassan thinks that the economic crunch is inevitably forcing austerity on the menus of festive seasons in many households.
He agued that falafel was already not as inexpensive as it was a few years ago. “Clearly it depends on the neighbourhood and whether we are talking about a small street stand like mine or a big shop or restaurant, but for all of us it is becoming more expensive, and it is taking a more central place on the table of more and more people,” Hassan said.
Falafel -- or taamiya according to the Cairo dialect -- is now “the queen of the table of the poor, the civil servants, who are also poor, and many others who are trying to make their salaries cover their monthly expenses,” he said.
Origin: Falafel or taamiya -- fava beans or chickpeas?
On 18 June, Google celebrated the international day of falafel -- the most commonly used name for the deep-fried golden brown vegan ball-shaped or patty-shaped fritters. One month later, a BBC food documentary suggested that Egyptian falafel, or taamiya, as better known in Cairo and Upper Egypt, was the best recipe for the fritters that constitute a serious staple of the diet of the Levant and Egypt.
Food anthropologists, and for that matter entire populations, have long debated the origin of this crunchy and delicious deeply fried balls.
Some have argued that it started in Pharaonic Egypt when the favas were dried for out-of-season usage and that eventually the crushed beans were mixed with herbs to make the falafel, as we know it today. Others suggested that falafel’s origin was in the Levant, particularly in Palestine.
This recent view prompted many Palestinians to contest the Israeli allegation that it is the Jews who could claim to be the original makers of falafel. A few have gone the extra mile to attribute the origin of falafel to India, suggesting that it first moved from India to Iraq, then to the Levant before landing and prospering in Egypt.
Whatever the origin, today’s falafel, be it from fava beans or chickpeas, is an uncontested item of the cuisine of the Middle East. Its vegan nature is perfectly compatible with the diet of all ethnic and religious components of the countries of the region. And with the exception of the dawn-to-dusk, Muslim, and at times Coptic, fast, falafel meets all Jewish, Christian and Muslim food regulations. It is also faithful to the high pulse consumption that is a firm profile of the region’s culinary.
The many faces of Cairo’s falafel
“It does not matter very much where it started; what matters most today, I think, is where it is most popular, most delicious and most consumed,” argued Hesham ElSheikh, owner of ElSheikh, a small Downtown Cairo falafel store that carries the name of a family that has been in the business for close to a century.
“My grandfather started this business at a relatively small scale in the early decades of the 20th century and we managed to survive and expand because of the unending popularity of falafel,” ElSheikh said.
In the old days of the business, like most other Cairo falafel places, ElSheikhs used to make falafel in the shape and size of ping-pong balls that would be sold in a paper cone that was mostly made out of newspapers.
Down the road, like most other shops, ElSheikhs replaced the cones with small paper bags as health awareness dismissed the use of newspapers for food rapping. They also reshaped the fritters to evolve into the now more common patty-shaped fritters, which started relatively small and ended up big enough to come close to mini-burgers in size. And in keeping with tradition of Lower Egypt, where the family of ElSheikh comes from, spicy finger-shaped falafel are also available.
ElSheikh’s falafel are mostly sold in sandwiches today, along with water-based tahini, a mixed salad, with the possible extras of French fries or fried or pickled eggplants, either in half-loaves of baladi bread or in the rounded 7cm-diameter Shami bread.
“The baladi bread is more popular than the Shami, and those who buy loose falafel often come to the shop with a plastic bag of freshly baked baladi bread to take along,” ElSheikh said.
Photos by: Sherif Sonbol
“It is true that it is there in other countries, Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, and it is made along different recipes -- from country to country, but Egypt is the land where taamiya is made at the widest scale possible and in the widest diversity possible too,” argued Omar Fattouh, owner of Esh El-Bolbol (the Bird Nest), a Heliopolis falafel shop.
For 55 years, Esh El-Bolbol has been operating around the clock to sell fuul, simmered fava beans, and falafel.
Throughout over six decades, Fattouh said, the making of fuul has not changed very much. It is still served with diverse dressings of oil or cleared butter (smen), sometimes with boiled and smashed boiled eggs on the top, or fried eggs or fried eggplants; and sometimes with garlic and tomato sauce.
For its part, falafel has gone a long way, not just in terms of shapes but also in terms of recipes. Today, the basic paste is still made of slowly crushed mix of fava beans, coriander, parsley, onions and garlic. However, Esh El-Bolbol makes the fritters not just in the old fashioned way of small balls, known as Ammaty (literally small and contained) or small patties, but also in larger patties inside of which is a filling of small-diced tomatoes and onions, diced tomatoes and jalapenos, within an omelet, or with mashed potatoes within an omelet.
Esh El-Bolbol’s most recent innovation on the falafel recipe is copyrighted Gaalissa, which is a fritter, 7cm in diameter, filled with diced onions, tomatoes, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes and pastrami.
For many Egyptians today, Fattouh argued, falafel is not just a breakfast item. It is effectively, due to budget concerns, a main meal item. “This required a bit of upgrade -- at least for some who could afford to spend more beyond the average LE3 for a typical falafel sandwich with tahini and mixed salad.”
The evolution of the making of falafel in Egypt, Fattouh argued, is not just a function of the economic austerity. It is also, he said, a function of economic changes.
Under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Fattouh family observed the strict regulations of pricing that prompted the selling of a falafel sandwich for two piasters in return for a safe supply of state-priced fava beans. With Anwar Al-Sadat’s open-door policy, the pricing system was removed as the state’s role in providing the fava beans ended.
Then, Fattouh added, the concept of fast food was introduced to Egypt. “It then became mandatory for us to innovate to meet the growing demand for more sandwiches; we could not have sold more if we just kept selling the same thing,” he said.
It was then, around the late 1970s, that most falafel shops initiated the complementary items of street food versions of veal liver and sausages, as exports of frozen meat and liver became routine.
Even then, liver and sausage would not put the falafel on the backburner. They just forced it to diversify its faces.
The past 10 years have seen a growing expansion of falafel-making, with the advent of relatively upscale Egyptian street food by chains that have innovated considerably as they introduced the patties filled with pickled lemons, labnah or even fried sausages. Some have also embraced the otherwise typical Alexandrian falafel of a boiled egg rolled with falafel paste.
“This thing about the evolution of the making of Egyptian falafel that is unmatched by the falafel of the Levant; they more or less stick to the same recipe, we change it a lot,” Fattouh said.
Stories beyond the chickpeas
Mohamed Riad is the third-generation owner of a Heliopolis Jordanian falafel shop, Abou Riad, about a 10-minute walk from Esh El-Bolbol in Heliopolis.
His family started the business back in 1970 when they had to leave Jordan to which they have went in 1948 following the Palestinian Nakba.
Some Palestinian families had to flee Jordan in 1970 following the fighting of Black September (Ayloul Al-Aswad) between the Palestinie Liberation Organisation and the Jordanian Royal Army. These families came to Egypt and started their private business.
Since it started operation in 1970, Abou Riad had expanded its menu but it had been firmly faithful to its falafel recipe which is made of chickpeas and a bit of coriander, and served in the round-shaped Shami bread with mashed chickpeas and tahini, a bit of diced parsley, known as Macdounissia, and mixed green salad. If served in plates at one of very few tables available, it is accompanied by two dishes, one for the mixed salad and another for Messabah, which is a mix of mashed chickpeas and Tahini that is topped with boiled chickpeas and a generous dose of olive oil.
Despite the close proximity of their shops, neither the Fattouhs nor the Riads have ever been in competition. Each says they cater for different tastes.
“Not necessarily a different clientele but a different taste, maybe a different mood -- one day someone might feel like the regular Egyptian taamiya and on another day they might fancy our falafel; it depends on what one feels,” Riad said.
In reality, argued Essam, a seller at Al-Faleh, a falafel shop in 6 October that was once owned by an Iraqi immigrant and is now owned by an Egyptian, “in Cairo today you can find all the falafels of the Middle East.”
Eesh El Bolbol- Photos by : Sherif Sonbol
Al-Faleh’s new owners are still faithful to the Iraqi recipe that is shared by their adjacent Al-Makhbaz Al-Iraqi (The Iraqi Bakery). Their falafel are small balls, made strictly of chickpeas and served in Samoune Bread, which is similar to the Shami bread in terms of being made of flower, water, a bit of milk and a grain of salt, but is different in terms of coming in an oval rather than a round shape.
The Iraqi falafel is served either with Anbah, a faded orange, relatively thick sauce made of a spicy powder of a mix of turmeric and dried mango slices, or with Sas, another relatively thick sauce made of spices of a Tamarind base, whose colour is reddish brown. It could come in the sandwich with either French fries or fried slices of eggplants. With these additions it is usually served with the Sas rather than with the Anbah.
Right next to these two Iraqi stores there is Midan Al-Sham, a perfectly popular falafel restaurant that observes the Damascus tradition of offering heart-shaped falafel.
Al Faleh-Photos by : Sherif Sonbol
“Yes, only in Damascus,” said Khaled, founder and co-owner of the restaurant.
According to Khaled, the recipe for the paste of Syrian falafel is “practically the same, all across Syria. It is made of chickpeas with a bit of dry coriander and served with pickles and maybe with green salad.” If served in dishes the falafel are coupled with dishes of yoghurt-based hummus and pickles. If served in sandwiches, they go into Sag bread, a considerably thinner version of the Shami bread that is not baked in the oven but over a flat pan, almost in the pancake technique.
Out of Damascus, he added, the falafel shape is generally that of a mini doughnut. Both for the heart-shaped and for the doughnut-shaped falafel, Syrian stores, including Midan Al-Sham, use a metal cutter they originally brought from Syria but is now being fabricated in Egypt.
Fouad, owner of another Syrian shop, Sanabel Al-Sham, that sells falafel, but in Nasr City, says that today Syrians in Egypt have developed a culinary industry network that provides and fabricates “almost everything”.
Some of the people who work in this industry in Egypt today come originally from the food industry. Others have been integrated. Mohamed, who makes and sells falafel at Sanabel Al-Sham “knew nothing about falafel making upon arrival to Egypt five years ago.”
It took him a few weeks to learn and he moved on fast. “Some of the workers who had been here and who had learned the job only in Egypt have now started their own businesses that are either complementary to ours or parallel,” Mohamed said.
Khaled agreed about an expanding, “and in fact truly welcomed, Syrian contribution to the food industry in Egypt… We still have to bring some ingredients from Syria, but with a considerable Syrian presence in Egypt, there is a whole culinary network.”
Magdi, the owner of Al-Ouda (The Return), a Palestinian restaurant in Nasr City, is also speaking of this Egypt-based, almost independent Palestinian culinary operation. “There have been Palestinians in Egypt for decades.”
Al Ouda- Photos by : Sherif Sonbol
Fleeing with falafel and other recipes
What Magdi offers his customers is essentially the Gaza-style falafel, which is made of chickpeas, a bit of garlic and coriander powder, served in the traditional Shami bread, essentially with mixed salad and water-based hummus. If served in dishes, the falafel come with a side dish of small, pickled green olives.
Magdi said that for many Palestinians, especially those who lived in Gaza or come originally from Gaza, a traditional falafel sandwich is served with a spicy jalapeno and garlic paste with no salad and no hummus.
Magdi himself still prefers this recipe almost religiously. “We stick to our recipes and the tastes we are familiar with; we love being in Egypt and we love being Egyptians but in our heart we keep the land we came from,” he said.
Given that he was born in Gaza a couple of years after his family fled Jerusalem, Magdi’s taste of reference is Gaza. This is firmly reflected in the dessert section of the shop/restaurant that serves types of Kenaffeh that are only made in the now devastated, impoverished and suffocated Strip on the borders with Egypt.
“I guess this is the story of the transfer of recipes all over the region for decades on end,” argued Abdel-Basset, a Syrian who fled Deir Al-Zour as it fell under the heavy Islamic State (IS)-Jabhat Al-Nusra battle.
Abdel-Basset is a maternal second cousin of Moussab and Hussein who work in Al-Makhbaz Al-Iraqi and who for their part came to Egypt a few years ago to escape an IS-dominated Fallujah.
“When Geith, the Iraqi owner of the restaurant who had come to Egypt in 2005 left to the US in 2011, I thought that eventually we will see the end of the large Iraqi presence that had brought in so many foods to Egypt, particularly to 6 October [city]; but then came a new wave of Iraqis who were now escaping IS and other militant groups that have taken over parts of Iraq and parts of Syria,” said Essam.
The Syrian presence in 6 October city that started to expand in 2013, as the Syrian call for democracy was quelled and then turned into a civil war, is part of a wider Syrian presence in Alexandria and Cairo that is essentially associated with the food industry.
Marwan, Khaled’s friend and partner, said the Syrian version of falafel is only the latest of many dishes the Syrians had brought to Egypt since the early waves of joint Syrian-Lebanese immigration to Egypt in the 19th century.
“This is where all the shawerma, the fattoush, the tabbouleh and the Kobeiba came from,” he said. And they are all present in Midan Al-Sham side by side with the falafel.
Bringing in new dishes and diverse recipes to the liking of the countries an immigrant has to move to for one reason or another becomes not just part of keeping an essence of the country of origin but also bringing in “something nice that helps with the integration”.
“I guess our highest moment of integration comes in Ramadan when we are serving Iftars and Sohours to the pleasure and appreciation of a mostly Egyptian clientele.”