Feasting on Falafel: The Middle East's famous fried patties can be addictive

Falafel served at Byblos Mediterranean Cafe in Syracuse can be an appetizer (foreground) or eaten in a pita wrap (background).
Before he left his home in Beirut, Lebanon for the last time, in the early 1980s, Philip Khabbaz went to see a man named Jean who owned a shop that sold nothing but falafel, the famous fried vegetable patties of the Middle East. 

"There were lots of falafel shops -- specialty falafel shops, but his always had a line," said Khabbaz, part of the family that now owns Byblos Mediterranean Cafe in Syracuse. "His falafel was the best."

Khabbaz had to prove to Jean that he had no plans to return to Beirut -- and become a competitor -- before he received what he wanted: the recipe. "My flight was Saturday," Khabbaz said. "I got the envelope on Friday."

Such is the allure of falafel.

It's eaten almost everywhere in the Middle East and in parts of the Mediterranean region -- and it's a low-cost item on just about every American restaurant menu serving Middle Eastern fare. It's hard to imagine Syracuse restaurant stalwarts like Munjed's or King David's without falafel.

Like many traditional foods, its origins are murky -- probably in ancient Egypt -- and the ingredients can be as varied as the landscape of the region.

"There's a kind of mystique with falafel," said Julie Ann Sageer, a local chef and cooking instructor who comes from a Lebanese family and now lives in Marcellus. "Maybe it's the distinctive shape, the beautiful golden earth color -- representative of the earth colors you see in the Middle East."

Falafel favorites?
Who serves the best falafel in the Syracuse area? Send your nominations to by Monday. We'll pick those with the most nominations and conduct an online poll at during that week. Meanwhile, those who send in a nomination will be entered in a random drawing for the book "Classic Lebanese Cuisine" by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih, (ThreeForks; $24.95). Be sure to include your name and mailing address. One entry per person, please.

Lebanese cooking
Local Lebanese chef/instructor Julie Sageer -- aka Julie Taboulie -- conducts a demonstration on Middle Eastern comfort foods, such as "Kafta bil Sanieh" 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Marcellus Free Library, 32 Maple St., Marcellus. The fee is $15. To register, call 673-3221 or go to For more on Sageer's events, go to
And, of course, the taste.

"It's honestly one of the tastiest things you can eat," said Sageer, who goes by the name "Julie Taboulie" in her professional life. "Crispy-crunchy on the outside, spicy on the inside. They're so addictive. They invite you to eat more."

Yet falafel starts with a humble main ingredient -- garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, and sometimes fava beans.

The beans are soaked overnight or longer, then ground up, but not too finely. To that base are added garlic and onions, spices and sometimes herbs. This mix is formed into patties, then fried.

That sounds simple enough. Then the variations begin.


Dennis Nett / The Post Standard

At Byblos, 233 N. Clinton St., Philip Khabbaz and his wife, Violette -- parents of owner Fady Khabbaz -- prefer to make their mix with more fava beans than garbanzo beans to achieve the right consistency. Sageer uses more garbanzo than fava -- she thinks the fava flavor is more harsh.

In his book, "Classic Lebanese Cuisine," chef Kamal Al-Faqih suggests using only garbanzo beans -- a common strategy of modern recipes because the garbanzos can be easier to find and work with.

That doesn't mean they're easy. If you're using dried beans, preferred by most cooks, then you must soak them at least overnight.

Sageer's method, like many others, adds a pinch of baking soda to the soaking water to soften them. She warns that canned beans will contain too much moisture, and you may need to add flour to help bind them, so they'll form patties.

After soaking, the beans are patted dry -- "you don't want moisture," Sageer said.

Sageer uses a food processor to grind them into a coarse meal, although for centuries Middle Eastern cooks broke up the beans with a rolling pin or mortar and pestle called a "jorn" and "modaqqa" in Arabic.

Most recipes agree on adding finely chopped onion and garlic.

Next comes a variety of Middle Eastern spices. Coriander and cumin are most common, as are varying amounts of red pepper.

"Mine have a bit of a kick," Sageer said, noting that she uses both cayenne pepper and crushed red pepper flakes.

At Byblos, the exact spice mix is a secret -- the one handed down from Jean in Beirut. But it does include cumin, allspice and red pepper, among other spices, Violette Khabbaz said.

Some of the spices used at Byblos, in fact, come from the garden of Violette Khabbaz's Lebanese-born mother, who lives in Phoenix, in Oswego County.

Parsley, cilantro or other green herbs are added to the mix in many recipes -- such as one included with this story from the book "Good Eating the Arabic Way," from St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Onondaga.

That's why so many versions of falafel have a greenish tint on the inside.

Sageer's recipe, and the one used at Byblos, have no herbs in the mix, so they maintain what Sageer calls a "more earthy flavor."


Dennis Nett / The Post-Standard 

Philip Khabbaz forms the falafel patties using a special mold.

Or, as Violette Khabbaz said, "the taste should be from lots of fresh spices."

Before forming the patties, Sageer also adds a touch of baking soda to the mix, to help them stay fluffy. They should be formed into round but flat patties, no more than a few inches across -- 1 or 2 tablespoons per patty. (Specialty kitchen stores carry hand-held falafel molds).

They're fried in hot oil, completely submerged, until a light golden brown.

Sageer said the tradition in Lebanon that she follows is to top the finished falafel with herbs like cilantro or parsley, as a garnish, along with other traditional garnishes like pickled turnips.

Lebanese tradition also calls for falafel to be served with tahini, a sauce based on sesame seeds and lemon.

"The tangy lemony sauce is a perfect match for the spicy, earthy falafel," Sageer said.

In Lebanon, as in other parts of the Middle East, falafel is one of the dishes called mezze (or meze or mazza). That translates roughly into appetizers, or perhaps more closely to the type of small-plate dishes the Spanish call tapas. They can be served on their own or inside pita bread.

Typical Middle Eastern mezze include hummus (a garbanzo-bean dip eaten with pita bread), baba ghannouj (an eggplant-based dip) and tabouli or tabbouleh, a salad made with parsley, mint and bulgur wheat.

"When you set the table in Lebanon, all the mezzes come down," Violette Khabbaz said. "Tabouli, baba ghannouj, hummus, and of course falafel."

Fantastically Flavorsome Falafel 
From Julie Ann Sageer 

1 cup dried garbanzo beans (chickpeas), very finely ground 
½ cup dried fava beans, very finely ground 
2 pinches baking soda, divided 
4 garlic cloves, very finely crushed 
1 small yellow onion (½ cup), very finely chopped 
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt 
1 teaspoon ground pepper 
1 ½ teaspoons coriander 
1 ½ teaspoons cumin 
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper 
1 ½ teaspoons sweet paprika 
4 cups vegetable oil 

Place garbanzo and fava beans together in a medium-sized bowl filled with cold water and soak with 1 pinch of baking soda for 2 days -- 1 day at room temperature, then 1 day in the refrigerator. After the second day, drain all water and place back in the refrigerator, covered. This should yield about 2 ½ cups soaked garbanzo beans and 1 cup soaked fava beans, or a total of about 3 ½ cups soaked beans. 

Finely crush the garlic in a food processor, and finely chop the onion by hand, then blend together. Transfer to small bowl, set aside. 

Grind soaked chickpeas and fava beans together until a small, grainlike consistency is achieved (no chunks or lumps). Add in the blended garlic and onion, plus the salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper and sweet paprika. Mix by pulsing food processor (be cautious not to over-mix). 

Transfer falafel mixture to medium mixing bowl, adding 1 pinch baking soda mix throughout with spoon. Set aside. 

In a large frying pan, pour 4 cups vegetable oil over high heat, bring to 350 degrees. 

Form small, oval flat patties by hand or with a spoon, smoothing and scraping off extra mixture on top of spoon with spatula. Drop into frying pan (entire patty should be submerged in oil), fry lightly to a golden brown. Remove from oil, set atop paper towels to drain excess oil. 

Serve freshly fried in wrapped and rolled warm pita bread with freshly chopped parsley, mint, tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, radishes, scallions and pickled turnips, Finish off with Tahini sauce (see accompanying recipe). Serves 6. 

Cook's tips: Adding the pinch of baking soda just before frying allows mixture to rise and become fluffy. It is ideal to have patties thin and flat, not thick and round, so they are able to cook evenly. For 8 to 12 servings, double the recipe. 

Tasty Tahini Sauce 
From Julie Ann Sageer 

1 cup tahini (bottled sesame seed paste) 
2 garlic cloves, very finely crushed 
1/3 cup cold water 
3 ½ lemons, freshly squeezed (3/4 cup) 
½ teaspoon sea salt 

Before using, stir tahini thoroughly in jar, mixing oil with paste. In a food processor, finely crush garlic cloves, then add tahini. Add cold water; blend. 

Add fresh lemon juice and salt. Blend thoroughly, until a creamy but light and airy consistency is achieved. 

Serve either at room temperature or after chilling for 4 to 5 hours. Finish with sprinkles of freshly chopped parsley and drizzle over falafel. 

Cook's tips: Choose quality tahini from a jar, not a can. Look for a visible separation of oil at the top of the jar. If Tahini sauce becomes too thick, slowly add additional fresh lemon juice and/or cold water, incorporating a little at a time, until an ideal consistency is achieved: It should be fluid, light and airy. For 8 to 12 servings, double the recipe. 

From "Good Eating the Arabic Way" (from St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church) 

2 cups dry chickpeas 
2 cloves garlic 
1 tablespoon cumin 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 medium onion 
½ bunch parsley 
1 teaspoon coriander 
1 teaspoon salt 
½ teaspoon black pepper 
Hot green pepper (optional) 

Soak chickpeas overnight. Rinse and drain. Grind in a meat grinder, alternating with onion, garlic and parsley. When done, add the rest of the ingredients to the mixture. Mix well and set aside for ½ hour. 

With hands, take a small portion of the mixture (walnut size); roll it into ball and then flatten into a patty. Fry in hot oil. When brown on 1 side, turn and brown on the other side. Serve hot in pocket bread. 

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