In search of the perfect falafel

Finding the perfect version of your favourite food is fraught with disappointment and false promises, writes Christina Wong.

There are foods that I love, and then there are foods that I really love. The falafel falls into the latter. I’m not exactly sure when my love affair with this quintessential Middle Eastern sandwich (or the original veggie burger) began, but I’m always craving one. As a few of my friends can attest, I have a tendency to – without hesitation – suggest falafels whenever we meet up for a bite to eat. They’re filling, they’re cheap, and being vegetarian, they’re ideal. And my carnivorous friends can always get a shawarma.

But I’ve realised my friends don’t share the same enthusiasm as I do for this chickpea-rich sandwich. It’s a love that goes deeper than just a craving: it’s become a mission to find the best one – a feat that’s proved to be rewarding, yet elusive. Very few have made it on my best falafel list.

So, what makes a great falafel? While the answer is highly subjective, I think we can all agree that the quality and freshness of the ingredients play a deciding factor. I still recall a time when I was served pre-fried falafel balls that were reheated on the grill. How long had they been sitting there, I wondered. There’s a huge difference between a falafel that’s just satisfying, and a falafel that’s simply the best. And for it to be the best, it’s got to be memorable.

They should be aromatic, crispy (not oily) on the outside, with a moist centre, and of course, fried to order. The toppings should include pickled turnips, shredded lettuce, parsley, tomato slices, hummus, and tahini, stuffed in a pita. I skip on the onions, and on occasion, will ask for it to be mildly spicy. Ideally, the bread should also be fresh, but I don’t know of too many places who make their own pita.

In order for a falafel to earn the title of “best”, these criteria must be met; it’s got to have the full package. For chef Yotam Ottolenghi, chickpeas should be “soaked, not cooked, before being ground, ideally in a meat grinder, or, if using a food processor, don’t overwork. The rest is almost immaterial. Salt, spices, that’s it.” And he should know. One of my chef friends told me that for her, you should be able to taste all of its flavours, not only in the actual falafel ball, but also in its sauces and toppings. There’s a sense of harmonium in play.

I’m always scouring for the best falafel joint wherever I am, or whenever I travel (rumour has it some of the best falafels in the world can be found in Copenhagen, New York City, and Tel Aviv). One of the best I’ve had was interestingly in Aarhus, Denmark, but for the life of me cannot remember the name of the place (except that it was near Café Paradis). Everything about the falafel, including the bread, was so fresh and bursting with flavour that it deserved a spot on my best list. There used to be two places in Toronto that I loved: Laila’s and the College Street location of the Adis Ababa franchise. Though both made some of the best falafels, they’ve unfortunately both since closed.

Back in London, I’ve tried a few, but nothing has whetted my falafel appetite as Aarhus and Toronto have done. So far my experiences have only been met with dry, crumbly insides or abject defiance at turning a falafel salad off-menu and into the pita instead. I left without ordering.

I’d had high hopes that I’d find a hidden gem amongst London’s litter of takeaways; surely there would be at least one that doesn’t only taste good after a night out. And while I try to hide my disappointment as my ‘just satisfying’ list keeps growing, I’m determined to find another memorable falafel with all the trimmings.

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