My daughter has recently become a vegetarian so we are now eating a lot of new things. Our favourite is falafel. We make our own—the main ingredient being chickpeas ground up with a few spices and vegetables and deep-fried.
Chickpeas have been eaten throughout human history. Wild chickpeas have been found in a cave in Southern France associated with humans from about 6700 BCE. Cultivated chickpeas were found in the earliest levels of Jericho, the world’s oldest town. By the Bronze Age (about 3000 BCE) chickpeas were known in Italy and Greece. In classical Greece, they were called erébinthos.
At some point in history chickpeas were rolled into balls and roasted or fried as falafels. They are now served alongside kebabs in Lebanese and Turkish fast food outlets everywhere in the known world. It is as Middle Eastern as camels, minarets and black coffee. But, apparently, it is also a staple food in the cuisine of India and Pakistan.
But the origin of falafels has become controversial and the debate is taking on biblical proportions. The New York Times ran a long article about how Israel’s adoption of falafel as it’s national food has upset the Palestinians who believe part of their culture is being appropriated. Many Palestinians think that Israelis have stolen their cuisine and are passing it off as native Jewish food. The Israelis suggest that falafel was eaten in Israel in biblical times and so therefore is as much their cuisine as anyone’s.
There are some clues to the source of falafels from its word history. Falafel in English, was first used in 1941 as a borrow word. It comes from the Arabic word falāfil (فلافل) which derives from the plural of filfil (فلفل) which means “pepper”. This is thought to derive from the Sanskrit (the ancient and formal language of India) word pippalī (पिप्पल) which means “long pepper”. This word history provides evidence for falafels coming from India.
However, another theory suggests the word, falafel, originated in Egypt, with the Copts (Egyptian Christians settlers about the time of the Roman emperor Claudius around 42 AD) that may have eaten falafels during Lent to avoid meat. The Egyptians used fava or field beans (which we call broad beans) to make falafel. The derivation proposed is from Pha La Phel “Φα Λα Φελ” meaning ‘of many beans’, which is a quite compelling theory and would take the origins of falafel to biblical times as is claimed.