Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Introducing Beirut’s king of falafel

Freshlly-fried falafel for my lunch
I discovered my favorite little falafel place in Beirut by chance. Right next to my cousin’s place, where I am staying, it still doesn’t have a name. It opened just a few months ago, and makes unrivaled falafel.

Not a big fan of sandwiches or fast-food, I was in a hurry and wanted something quick to eat a couple of days into my stay here and decided to try it out. I’ve been going back nearly every day since. They serve fool mudammas and different hummus recipes, but I haven’t tried those yet.

It is difficult to trace the origin of falafel, the small, fried croquettes. Probably ancient, and often hijacked by different countries, it is accepted falafel originated in Egypt, where the Copts claim them as their own as a replacement for meat during Lent.

Salah Jammal in front of his falafel place, and helper Ahmad Matar
Except in the port city of Alexandria, falafels are called ta’amia in Egypt. They are made with dried broad beans or fool. In Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan they use dried broad beans and/or chickpeas.

It is maybe from Alexandria that falafel was introduced to the rest of the Middle East and spread worldwide. Made from ground chickpeas and/or fava beans, they are usually served as a sandwich in Arabic bread with pickles, tomatoes, mint or parsley, hot pickled peppers and drizzled with a tahini sauce. Some prefer to eat them without the bread and just with the tahini dip.

Salah's secret falafel mix
Bread, vegetables and pickles ready
As happens in Beirut, after two visits to the mini-restaurant to pick up my lunch, I got to know the owner, Salah Jammal, who also runs a popular grocery, right next-door, on the corner of Sadat and Sidani Streets in Hamra.

Salah, who goes back and forth between his two stores, makes the falafel mix himself and boasts to have a secret recipe. He laughed when I asked what it is. He would only say that he combines the Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian savoir-faire to create his formula. Salah consults on his mix with Rabih Jammal, a chef and Hotel Management professor at the Lebanese American University (LAU).

He says you can tell the quality of a falafel from the color of its interior – incredibly green in his case. “That’s one of my secrets,” he says. “I’m thinking of a logo for the place along those green lines. I use greeneries no one else uses.”

Ahmad Matar prepares my falafel sandwich
It's nearly ready... just a drizzle of tahini missing
Pressed again, Salah would only reveal three ingredients: 50/50 chickpeas and beans (the Lebanon method), fennel (Egypt) and celery (Jordan). And he would disclose nothing more!

Helped by Ahmad Matar at the mini-restaurant, Salah is mostly at the grocery, a popular stop for neighborhood residents, who pass by for a chat and coffee as well as shopping.

Salah Jammal back at his grocery
On my first visit, I ordered two falafel sandwiches. I thought they would be a normal size. They were huge, made with the largest Arabic bread size, for LL. 2500 ($1.66) each. A smaller one is LL. 2000 ($1.33) and the extra version is LL. 3000 ($2). A dozen falafels cost LL. 5000 ($3.33).

The excellent falafels, the fresh vegetables and pickles that go with them and the jovial service have won me over. You can visit Salah Jammal’s place with me in pictures.