For those of you who actually read my blog, I apologize for not updating it yet this year. It’s not at all because I’ve forgotten; on the contrary actually. I’ve been trying out one recipe but it took me a while to finally get it right. Yay me.
Anyhoo, today’s entry will thus be dedicated to a dish or snack that has its roots in Egypt: ta’meya or falafel. That’s right, though the Levantine countries have the better business minds to export falafel to the masses around the world, it does originate from Egypt and there is a key difference in its preparation: the beans. It’s the beans that make a world of difference.
In Egypt, green broad beans are used. In the Levantine version, it’s chickpeas. Now, for the green broad beans, they are loosely translated into english as ‘fava beans’. I made the mistake of assuming these fava beans were the same ones used in ful mudammas; BIG mistake. Now I know that fava beans and broad beans, or green broad beans are two entirely different things. And these broad beans are readily available outside of Egypt in fresh, canned, frozen or dried versions.
But where did the falafel idea come from? There is evidence of dried broad beans from pharaonic tombs. One book I read sourced pharaonic cooks as making bean fritters using mashed broad beans, garlic, onions and spices.
That could be the precursor to how falafel became incorporated into the diets of Egyptians post-pharaoh rule. The Coptic people, often seen as descendants from the ancient Egyptians, still maintain a few practices from those days. One has been eating falafel as a substitute for their fasts, mainly during the time of lent. The Copts do many fasts throughout the year that forbid any animal product; therefore they have often been the ones to come up with new ways to incorporate vegan meals into their diets.
But why is it referred to as ta’meya in Egypt?
One man I interviewed explained the origin of the word ‘falafel’. In fact, it is a Coptic word meaning to roll. So when you roll your bean fritter into a ball to fry, that’s the falafel. When the Islamic conquest came to Egypt, the Coptic language was pushed aside to make way for Arabic. The food item falafel turned to ta’maya, meaning Tam (taste) Meya (a hundred), so food for the hundreds. A food that can easily feed the people.
But then there is another theory. Ta’meya could also be a word rooted in the Coptic or Pharaonic language. The term falafel comes from arabic and is the plural form of filfil meaning peppers. It is also used to describe something that is fluffy, such as the frying of bean fritters in this case.
So there’s a bit of a dilemma in terms of the true origin of the name.
Following the spread of Islam into Egypt during the 600s, ta’meya also became a staple in the diets of practicing Muslims, especially during Ramadan, when they break their fast at sunset. The taameya is eaten as a meze, or appetizer before the main meal. Either way, falafel has woven its place into the streets of Egypt and can be eaten any time and anywhere, and cheaply. With the spreading of Islam throughout the Middle East, the idea of ta’meya travelled, and was adapted locally. In the Levantine, broad beans are not as popular as chickpeas. So their version has always been made using chickpeas.
According to one man interviewed for this entry, the division of the falafel was in Egypt. When the fritters were being made they were only fava beans. But in the areas where there were big Jewish communities (more in the north) chickpeas were also incorporated. When these communities left Egypt, they took the chickpeas variation. But in Egypt, especially in the southern cities (Asyut, Minya, etc.) falafel remains strictly fava-bean based.
In Egypt, it’s often eaten for breakfast, or as a snack in the middle of the day, but either way, it’s a sandwich. In the small and intertwining streets of the main market in Cairo, Khan al-khalili, you can find small food stalls or restaurants scattered throughout the maze. I found an amazing taameya one last time. Everything, as usual, was wonderfully fresh. The falafel is fried right there, thrown into a fresh pita, or ‘aish baladi’ (country bread), and stuffed with tahina, pickled turnips, pickles, and tomatoes. Mmmmm
The fresh pita, is one point that makes the taameya particularly yummy in Egypt. It’s a pita bread that you can rarely find anywhere else. It’s thick, and airy on the inside and has cracked wheat and bran throughout it.
I just found a place now that makes this bread; which is amazing since my stash of frozen pita from Egypt ran out a long time ago. No one seems to know a set recipe on how it’s made, but it’s served throughout the country-side, and city all the time, everywhere and always fresh. It’s thought to be a recipe also dating back to the times of ancient Egyptians.
Back in my home growing up, falafel was not a popular dish. It’s a little heavy to make at home because of the frying , and it is a little labour intensive to make as well. The few times we had it, my mom ripped open a box of pre-made falafel mix. Let me just say, while that is good; nothing beats how wonderfully satisfying a fresh one is. And since it’s unlikely to be a meal you’ll often eat at home; make the fresh version so you get it right the first time.
Total preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 persons
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon baking soda
white sesame seeds (optional)
Fresh pita bread
Green onion (optional)
1. If you bought dried beans, you will need to soak them for at least six hours.
2. Once they are soft enough to mash, peel the skins off.
3. If you bought beans frozen or canned, the skins may already be off, but check first by rolling one in your fingers, if the skin comes off easily, then you will need to do the same to the rest.
4. If you have a food processor, add the beans, onions, garlic, spices and baking soda and purée.
5. If you don’t have a food processor, chop finely the onions and garlic and add the spices.
6. Mash the beans with a masher or fork and add to the onion mixture.
7. Grab a hand full of coriander and parsley
8. Finely chop the herbs and add it to the bean mix.
9. Mix everything well until it is a consistency that holds a shape.
10. If it feels too soft, add a bit of flour until the consistency is a bit drier.
11. Using your hands, grab about a tablespoon size of the mix and shape it into a little patty.
12. If you have sesame seeds, dip the patty into the seeds, if not, dip lightly into some flour.
13. Continue this process until the mix is done.
16. Prepare the tahina using the recipe from earlier.
17. Cut up the cucumber and/or tomato and green onions.
18. Cut up the pita bread into halves.
19. Add some tahina to the bread, a couple tameeyas, and some vegetables and pickles.
20. Eat and enjoy!!
The trick to good taameya is eating them when they are still warm, and making sure your bread is fresh. The taameya does keep for about five days, so you can keep eating them all week long.