Falafel, an ancient dish from Egypt, found itself in our era in the middle of this civilization collision mess. If only all other outcomes of cultural conflicts were so tasteful.
I’m afraid we are all living in what that famous Chinese saying calls “interesting times”. And it’s most certainly too interesting here, in Israel.
Even if you follow the news, you probably don’t get the full picture. It is complicated, and I’m really here to write about food, so I’ll say just that: both us Israelis and our Palestinians brothers, are good people with lousy leaders.
But well, I’m here to tell you about the complexity of the Israeli pita bread, so lets get down to it.
The Melting Pot
The state of Israel was established with the concept of “Melting Pot” in mind. Being so heterogeneous, ethnically and culturally, it’s population had to loose some of it’s diversity in order to adopt some common denominators – or so our leadership seemed to think.
It failed of course, and 60 years later Israel is still laden with inner conflicts. But we do share some levantine passions, mostly around foods. Israelis or Palestinians, Jewish or Muslim (or Christian), secular or religious – most everybody ’round here just love hummus, falafel and pita.
Sadly, most Israelis do not know many other Arab foods, but some do. And true, some people here call these foods “Mizrahi”, Middle-Eastern, which some Arab people feel is a way of taking the credit from the magnificent Arab Cuisine. But the truth is that these foods are already an integral part of our common self-identity.
Going into the Pita
The pocket pita bread, now on every table in the middle-east, is a relatively new invention. Traditional Arab breads was flat too, but they weren’t hollow. Contrary to the serene eating of hummus, sited down, it was falafel – quickly packed in a pita bread, in a rush – which was chosen as this country’s national food. Goes better with the temperament, I guess.
Falafel is easy to make (recipe), it’s ingredients are very basic and cheep, and so the poor yet delicious “falafel portion” easily became more than just a popular fast food – it became something everybody eats. This happened many years before the establishment of this state and hadn’t changed since.
Inside the Pita
The Israeli pita turned out to be very susceptive. Alongside the falafel burgers, vegetable salad and tahini, some additions brought from the diaspora quickly emerged, and made it into a multi-culti fusion dish, with various influences.
The pita will usually contain some potato chips (an American invention, contrary to the common myth). It sometimes has pickled cabbage (East-European) in it or Iraqi style pickled vegetables, or just plain pickles. Oftentimes it is spiced with red Zhuk (Yamanite hot-pepper sauce), and sometimes with Ambah (scary looking Iraqi orange sauce. Odious but tastes good).
The falafel itself comes from Egypt, and the best sesame (for the tahini) comes from Uganda for as long as anybody can remember.
So ironically, the Israeli pita serves as this melting pot, combining the different ingredients into something colorful, exciting, tasteful and highly contagious – judging from the worldwide success of the concept. If only our life here in the middle-east were more like that pita.