SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Middle Easterners - for that matter, a lot of American Middle Westerners - can get pretty passionate about falafel. Those crispy fried balls of mashed up beans, herbs and spices have been called a national dish of both Israel and Egypt. Until recently, Hana Baba of member station KALW in San Francisco, thought falafel was only made the way her mother makes it. Her family is from Egypt's neighbor, Sudan. Wanting to find out more, Hana went falafel shop hopping around San Francisco and sent us this report.
HANA BABA, BYLINE: First, I went to what I know best - a place that makes falafel the way my mother taught me - with garbanzo beans, otherwise known as chick peas.
RAMZI TOTARI: And we add onions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, cumin.
BABA: Ramzi Totari is the owner of Falafel Etc. in Fremont, California. He was born in Nazareth, Israel, where his father owned a falafel shop. Totari came to the U.S. to go college - worked in the high tech industry for many years - but falafel was in his blood.
TOTARI: In every one of the Middle Eastern countries, every street corner has a falafel stand on it. They don't have hamburger stands, they have falafel stands.
BABA: Totari is Israeli Palestinian, and where he comes from Palestinians and Jews make falafel pretty much the same way.
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BABA: And as my mother always told me, the oil must be hot, just like Chef Ramzi's, so the falafel balls dive like swimmers to the bottom and rise back up again.
TOTARI: If you cook it just right, as soon as you put it in the oil, the outside shell seals, and so it doesn't allow oil to get into it.
BABA: He's right. Crunchy on the outside, not oily on the inside. Is his way the best? Of course, he says. But despite being proud of his Palestinian-style falafel , Ramzi Totari admits the falafel most likely originated in Egypt.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)
BABA: Pharaoh's Mediterranean Sandwich Shop recently opened in San Francisco, and not surprisingly, falafel, or taameya, as most Egyptians call it, is one of their best sellers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can I have an extra order of falafel?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, sure.
BABA: And in the back kitchen of the restaurant, Yasmin Elmorsy is getting ready to make a fresh batch.
YASMIN ELMORSY: This is the fava beans that were soaked yesterday.
BABA: That's right. Fava beans, not garbanzo. This is the Egyptian way.
ELMORSY: And we are, Egyptians are eating fava beans from so long ago, so surely there are the Pharaohs who were the first to make the falafel.
BABA: Traces of fava beans have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. And it's possible falafel has roots in ancient Egypt. Another theory is that the dish originated with Egypt's Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent. And now, thousands of years later in San Francisco, Yasmin, her father and four brothers are running a restaurant that offers falafel the same way.
ELMORSY: So, it's a family restaurant and with my mother's recipes - she passed away. So, she teach me and I taught my father and my brothers how to do the recipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER RUNNING)
BABA: Yasmin mixes the fava beans, with cilantro, parsley and onion until it's smooth as possible. Then she adds spices: salt and pepper, sesame, and most important - ground coriander.
ELMORSY: So, be generous with the coriander. It makes the taste of the falafel.
BABA: Yasmin shapes her falafels into what look like small burgers. And after a few minutes of frying, I get to try my first ever fava bean falafel. Mmm, coriander. Maybe one difference is that this is heavy. It's dense, so it feels more like a meal. Very flavorful. Mmm. Why Egyptians use fava Beans and others garbanzo may have more to do with available food crops than taste. But I also learned, there is a third way - a hybrid.
MADAME LEILA SFEIR: Garbanzo beans and fava beans - it's my Lebanese way.
BABA: Madame Leila Sfeir moved here from Lebanon with her family over 30 years ago. She runs a small catering business in Fremont, California.
SFEIR: Who makes the best falafel? Me.
BABA: Leila's mixture - chock full of parsley and cilantro - looks more vegetable-y than beany. Yours is very green.
SFEIR: And tasty. I put a lot of green. I like the green.
BABA: After frying, she puts three falafel balls, along with lettuce and tomatoes, on top a dinner plate-sized pita bread.
SFEIR: Tahini sauce, soak it good.
BABA: She wraps it in the pita and the sandwich is complete.
SFEIR: I make it all yummy. I like it and I make it again and again and I keep making.
BABA: And maybe it's not really who makes the best falafel. As one food historian reminded me recently, it's the way you were brought up eating it - that means everything to you. For NPR News, I'm Hana Baba in San Francisco.
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SIMON: And you can find falafel recipes and share a couple of your own at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Bon appetit. I'm Scott Simon.