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Cooking with Carls: Enjoy falafel sandwiches inyles on Friday, May 2

<eet corners in Cairo, finding a vendor or a small shop that sells flat-bread sandwiches stuffed with falafels is not a difficult thing to do. The locals and tourists gather around falafel stands to enjoy this ultimate favorite street food of Egypt. While a couple dozens of falafel balls were thrown into a huge wok filled with steaming oil, the seller took a piece of already-halved flat bread and skillfully stuffed it with these fried fava bean balls, a handful of fresh red tomatoes and lettuce in about a minute, and finished it up with a generous scoop of tahini sauce made of sesame. Although the falafel sandwich I had looked and tasted a bit different from the one I had in the United States, I was glad to be able to connect my expectation to the experience.

However, what I had not anticipated was the incredible similarity between the cuisine of Egypt and those of its neighboring countries, especially east of Egypt, such as Syria and Lebanon. Not only the common items such as falafel, hummus and kebab, but the ingredients like eggplant, tomatoes, beans, lamb, and various spices, and moreover the way they think of a typical meal had lots of things in common. For example, a decent meal starts with flat breads and dips such as hummus and tahini, and several mezzes (side dishes), such as bababhannuug or salad. The grilled meat (kebab) or chicken dish is a typical main dish, followed by heavily honey-sweetened desserts like baklava or basbosa (made with cornmeal). While of course there are dishes that are specific to each region, for example the national soup made of a plant called mulukhiya in Egypt, this similarity in cuisine or this widely shared food culture in the region was surprising to me.

The question follows: Is it because of geographical proximity? Maybe, since neighboring countries are indeed likely to share the similar climate and have cultural exchanges throughout history. Nonetheless, in case of East Asia, Korea, China and Japan seem to have very little integration in terms of cuisine other than eating rice and using chopsticks. Although the people in these countries have been aware of one another’s cuisine, it still remains exotic. I don’t see much similarity between fish and chips in England to risotto in Italy, certainly not to the same degree as what I described about Egypt and its neighbors. Maybe it is language, ethnicity, or even religion that has assisted these cuisines to flow and influence each other easily in the Middle East. While I am not here to investigate or analyze the contribution of each factor here, taking a closer look at a country’s cuisine is a delicious way to understand its history and culture.

Here is a chance for you to think like a gastronomist. This Friday, May 2, some of the students who participated in the Middle East Mosaics program will sell falafel sandwiches in Sayles. The proceeds will be used to buy craft materials for a girls’ school in Egypt.

Falafel Sandwich (Serves 4)

1 cup dried fava beans (or/and chickpeas)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
2 Tbsp flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for frying

4 pita bread
1 or 2 tomato, chopped
1 cup lettuce, chopped
8 Tbsp tahini sauce (or hummus)

1. Soak dried fava beans in water overnight. (or use canned beans and skip step 1 and 2)
2. Drain the beans and place in a pan with water. After boiling them for 5 minutes, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour.
3. Drain and cool for 15 minutes.
4. In a medium bowl, mix beans, garlic, onion, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. Use a food processor or a folk to combine them well. Add flour little by little to keep the consistency of thick paste.
5. Roll the mixture into small balls, and flatten them slightly.
6. Heat a generous amount of oil, and fry the balls for 5 minutes or until golden brown.
7. Cut pita bread into half. Add falafels, lettuce, tomatoes and tahini sauce.

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