Haneen Abo Soad | 28-04-2021
When I was young, I used to visit my aunt and uncle’s house in the Dear el Balah refugee camp in el Moaaskar. Each day we would walk through the narrow streets of the camp to Koshek el Falafel (the falafel booth) to buy falafel for breakfast or sometimes for dinner. For only two shekels we could buy a good amount to feed our hungry family — 12 or 13 pieces of falafel with a plate of brown beans and a plate of hummus.
People stood in a long line outside the stand, waiting to order their food,. While waiting, they spoke of the matters that affected their lives: whether the border would be opening or not and the need for better drinking water, as the seawater was too expensive to desalinate and the available fresh water was not enough to meet the basic needs of the camp. Meanwhile, the children were giggling and screaming while they chased each other around in the street. I loved watching them play.
There were many families like ours that would eat falafel in the morning and again in the evening, and for lunch perhaps they might cook something else. But to save money it was often best just to buy falafel, which was easily gotten without worry.
Falafel is perhaps the most famous traditional food found across the Arab world, and you will find it on the breakfast table every day in Arab countries. It is made from fried chick peas, but I read that Egyptians make it with tamya, and they also call it tamya, and in Yemen they make it with beans and call it bajeya. Falafel is crunchy, and the taste is tangy and nutty. Falafel can come in the shape of a small or large ball or flattened into patties. It can be also come with a variety of stuffings, such as sumac and onions, which I love. It can be served either as a sandwich or on a plate with foul (beans), or maqali (potato, egg plant and tomato fried in a pan), or with a salad. Most commonly it’s served with hummus with tahini. My favorite way to serve it is with salad and pickles and scrambled eggs and beans and raw tomato, cut into a triangle shape.
Falafel is not only comfort food, it’s the center of our culture and cuisine, of the lives of people who make it and provide it to others. For people who love to eat it, it is a sacred ritual every day, shared amongst friends, strangers and lovers. Simply offered, it creates warmth and hospitality. For me, it’s not just a meal. It awakens memories of home.
There is even an International Day to honor falafel every year, June 12. I remember last year on that date. The coronavirus was sweeping across Portugal where I now live, and I could not visit any of the Arab restaurants to celebrate falafel, so I made it at home, ate it and celebrated the day by myself, and it was wonderful.
I would like to share a little story of when I visited a Nepalese restaurant just this week, and I wanted to eat falafel. By now you will probably have noticed that falafel is something of an obsession for me, and I often walk all around Lisbon to find the good falafel places. I entered the restaurant and asked for a falafel pita sandwich, and was surprised to find that they had it! I was served, and to be honest I wish I hadn’t been. I wished that the waiter had told me, “Sorry madam, we don't have it today.” But instead he brought a falafel sandwich that was covered in ketchup and mayonnaise, and he set it down right in front of my face. It was disgusting, and I wanted to send it back, but I said to myself, “Hey Haneen, you asked for it, you can’t just leave it there.”
The taste of the falafel was entirely buried under the flavor of the ketchup and mayonnaise. But I ate it to be polite, and it was … okay just okay, and I got through it, barely. And then when I paid, the man asked me, “Did you enjoy your falafel, madam?” I thought, okay, I should be nice and just tell him it was good, but I couldn’t do it. Instead I said, hopefully without judgment, “You know, I never ate falafel with ketchup and mayonnaise before. I am from Palestine and we do not make it that way.” The man stared unhappily back at me and mumbled, “Well this is how we make it here. We improvise.” I tried to be polite, so I said, “Glad to know that you are trying something new! I’m sorry, I won’t eat falafel here next time I come, but I definitely would like to try your Nepalese food.” He smiled as I left.
That evening I walked aimlessly around the the streets and neighborhoods of the beautiful city of Lisbon, letting my feet lead me while my mind wandered. Eventually, I got hungry again and decided this time to go to a place I know and trust. I went to a Palestinian restaurant in Lisbon called Jafra that serves genuine Palestinian food.
I entered and was welcomed in Arabic, and offered black tea with fresh mint. I ordered my food in my mother language, Arabic. The songs playing in the back ground were also in Arabic: songs about revolution and also love songs. I felt as if I were not in Lisbon anymore, but transported back home to Gaza.
When I ate the falafel with manaeesh (Shmi fried dough with za’atar and olive oil) I could taste home and enjoy the images that came to me while I ate. One bite of falafel and a sip of tea brings the heart back to life.
The most difficult thing about living away from home is not only missing the ones I love, but also Palestine, my home, my way of living. One of the memories that I return to often is when my sisters and I prepared falafel sandwiches for an evening of watching a film together. One of my sisters thought it was crazy and she wanted popcorn, but all of us wanted to watch the film Omr, about a young man and woman who cannot live out their love for one another because they are on opposite sides of the Israeli wall of occupation. The film has special meaning for me, because circumstance has also separated me from everyone that I love. Life’s most profound moments are connected to food and culture and family – to home and gatherings and times to remember. In my memory, that evening as my sisters and I sat close together and ate falafel while watching the movie, we were happy. Someday we’ll all be together again.
Posted: April 28, 2021
Mentor: Evan Dunsky