On the Jewish food scene: Falafel, hummus and shawarma

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

During the 10 months I spent in Be’er Sheva, Israel, during rabbinical school (1996-97), I developed a weekly tradition. Every Friday (since there were no classes that day), I went to the Old City and wandered up and down the two block street/outdoor mall of shops and restaurants. My favorite part of the day was lunch: many of the lunch stands sold falafels. (For those who’ve never had a falafel, it consists of deep-fried balls or patties usually made from chickpeas. These balls are stuffed into a pita pocket with salad.)

I tried a different one each week and focused on the salads and sauces you could pour into the pita. Mine were different from many people’s because I requested the falafel “belie chips,” meaning “without chips”: I didn’t want the french fries that otherwise would have been part of my sandwich. (I once saw someone eat one that was just french fries in a pita pocket: not my type of thing.) Only once in the almost 30 years since then have I had a falafel that was anywhere near as good as those. 

The falafel is often thought of as an Israeli food, but there’s a great debate about whether falafel and hummus (the spiced chickpea spread that is part of the sandwich) are really Israeli. On the one hand, falafel and hummus are Middle Eastern dishes that many consider part of Arab culture. Those from Lebanon have claimed the food as their own, noting that it only later became part of Israeli culture. On the other hand, Mizrahi Jews (those whose ancestors lived in the Middle East or northern Africa) have legitimately noted that their ancestors ate these foods. Food scholars, however, say neither of these claims is correct: the general consensus now is that the falafel originated in Egypt. 

What was interesting about the falafel stands in Be’er Sheva is that they sold something else: shawarma. I’d never seen anything like it before: large cone shaped, vertical rotisseries of meat were cooking in an unusual oven. I believe the ones in the Old City were made of lamb, but don’t quote me because I think I only ate one once. Research says that beef, chicken or a mixture of meats could also be used. The meat was kosher and the stands had the certificates to prove it. Although many also think of shawarma as an Israeli food, food historians believe it originated in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, possibly as early as the 18th century.

Now that I think about it, I assumed that my falafel was pareve (meaning it contained no meat or dairy products), but I never thought to ask what type of oil was used to cook the falafel balls. I do know that there were no dairy products sold at these stands: at least at that time, any kosher restaurant in Israel was either strictly dairy or strictly meat. That meant you couldn’t go to a Subway shop (as I did in a bus station in a city other than Be’er Sheva; I can’t remember which one) and ask for a cheese sub. They didn’t even keep cheese in a meat shop so there was no chance for meat and milk to accidentally mix.

As for the debate on whether falafel, hummus and shawarma are Israeli food, I don’t really care who invented a food as long as it tastes good. And Jews have always transformed the cuisine in any land in which they lived and made it Jewish, so why should Israel be any different?