Growing up as a Palestinian meant that falafel was on my table for breakfast, dinner and sometimes even lunch. It is hard to distinguish which is the best falafel sandwich among the prominent restaurants in Gaza whose businesses depend on falafel as a popular dish. One day, I was surprised to read a media headline describing falafel as an Israeli national dish. Israel already has colonized our land and killed so many of our children; now they are stealing our culture, heritage, and even our food!
In Gaza, felafel is so ubiquitous it is hard to identify which restaurant serves the best. Different restaurants make falafel in different shapes; it can be oval, round, large, small or even flat like the Egyptian version, called tamiya. However, in Gaza it is usually round. The most famous falafel restaurant is probably Nemer Akkila, because it is the only chain and has branches in Rafah, Khan Younis and Nuseirat refugee camps.
One reason falafel is so popular is its affordability for the poor It costs as little as 3 cents apiece, which means you can feed the average Palestinian family of six for less than $1. Falafel everywhere is made of chickpeas or fava beans and parsley, but the additional spices vary and create different taste experiences, and with full confidence I will say the falafel recipe in Gaza is the best I have had across many places around the world. Wherever I travel as a Palestinian, I look for a falafel wrap or sandwich to remind me of the taste of home. However, after traveling from Egypt to Jordan to the United States, I can say with confidence that the falafel recipe in Gaza is the best.
Ahmed, one of my closest friends who is now living in Turkey, told me during one of our many long-distance chats that he misses falafel. He’s only a three-hour flight away, but it would take me months of waiting to leave through Egypt’s Rafah crossing, then an 18+ hour drive through Sinai and finally three hours of flying to visit. (Ahmed left Gaza about 16 months ago, in an ambulance, after he was shot in the leg during the Great Return March protests. He was about 300 meters away from the Gaza fence while accompanying a group of foreign journalists when he was hit. Eventually, he had to be transferred to Cairo for treatment and then to Istanbul.)
While in university, Ahmed always liked to eat falafel after classes were done for the day. He tells me how much he misses walking from the university campus to the beach, passing by our famous Zahran Restaurant near Ansar Square in Gaza City. He liked to buy a couple of falafel sandwiches, then walk to the Gaza seaport, a place where most people visit to relax on the beach.
“We have falafel in Turkey, but it is not the same,” he says.
In Gaza, felafel is made of chickpeas, instead of regular peas or fava beans like in Egypt, sometimes with some onion and green peppers added to the mix, giving it a spicy taste. Mixed with French fries and wrapped in “farshooha” bread, it’s a combination that makes me ask for more.
I know exactly how my friend feels because I recall having to travel all the way from North Carolina, where I spent an exchange study year, all the way to New York City in a search to find good falafel. Just like Ahmed, I was disappointed when I tasted the $5 quasi-falafel sandwich. (It contained only one piece of falafel; the rest was salad greens and other sauces. I’m not a salad person.) On my way home from the United States, I spent a night in Amman, Jordan, and another night in Ramallah, Palestine (West Bank). I was eager to taste different versions of falafel. I wasn’t as disappointed as in the United States, but it didn’t have the “soul” of Gaza’s falafel. There was always something missing, or something not quite right. I don’t consider myself a connoisseur, but I can tell when a people have cooked a favorite food for hundreds of years, becoming masters of the recipe.
You might consider me biased toward my country’s food, but I am also an Egyptian citizen. During my time in Egypt last year, I decided to try its version of falafel, the Egyptian tamiya. It was tasty and had its own identity, but it was not close to Gaza falafel. It was made of fava beans, eggs, parsley and other components I could not identify.
To Palestinians, falafel is more than a national dish adapted from recipes originating in neighboring countries like Egypt and Syria. It’s more than a recipe we refined to our own perfection. It represents an identity and it symbolizes who we are, telling our story through every ingredient we add, every spice that fires emotions of feeds our nostalgia and brushes up on memories of home, and every household a falafel restaurant supports. Falafel means so much to me and to Palestinians, and should not be stolen from us.
In addition to its many other violations of our fundamental human rights, this is an example of how Israel extends its reach beyond just the land and souls of the Palestinian people. It actively seeks to hijack the Palestinian cuisine as their own in a large-scale effort rebrand what all that is Palestinian. While food is not an exclusive property of one nation or culture, and is not protected by patents, it is our right as Palestinians to be recognized for foods and other arts at which we excel. It is only fair that we maintain the identity being pulled from under our feet. Our land already is occupied; falafel should not be occupied too!