Soft, Crunchy, Cool, Warm, Spicy and Mild: Is Yemenite Falafel the Perfect Food?
It is arguably the best food in Jerusalem, and it costs less than $5
By Noga Tarnopolsky/The Media Line
At three o’clock in the afternoon, an unending stream of mostly wordless men wait in the tiny anteroom and outside the door of a locale whose awning reads The Center for Yemenite Falafel.
Despite the name, it is not a think tank. It also not one of Jerusalem’s famed high-end eateries, like Machaneyuda, whose London outpost was voted the British capital’s best restaurant last year.
Instead, it is a tiny corner hole-in-the-wall on Jerusalem’s Prophets’ Street offering the most modest of Mideast foods, falafel, and nothing else.
As the men file in, each is handed a single, hot ball of falafel, a sort of amuse–gueule, a promise of things to come. Then, following the ritual of the place, each will generally utter a single word: Pita. Eishtanour. Pita. Eishtanour. Lachuch.
Pita bread everybody knows. Eishtanour is another name for lafa, the unleavened, paper-thin wrap wide as a plate. Lachuch, is a pancake-like Yemenite bread reminiscent of Ethiopian injera.
On Fridays, the Center offer also jahnoun, which Joan Nathan, the luminary of Jewish cooking, calls the “Yemenite precurser to the kugel,” and kubaneh, a pull-apart yeast loaf that evokes a savory version of monkey bread.
“Only tachini for you, right?” responds Eyal Ma’abari, a small man with long dark sidelocks, fiendishly quick, before expertly wrapping a large flatbread into a tight bundle of flavor and moving on to the next customer.
One customer, requesting two portions, ask for a moment to call a friend and inquire as to the specific fillings and accompaniments he wants. The service’s rhythm is briefly interrupted.
Eyal’s father, Motti Maabari opened this place, up a small hill rom the Old City’s Damascus Gate, in 1976, and it has served a loyal tribe of patrons ever since, six days a week from 10 am to 6pm. It boasts a perfect five-star rating on TripAdvisor, and rated a recommendation in Lonely Planet’s guide to Israel.
Yair Zaken, a cab driver who drops by for the classic eishtanour falafel, has been a client since its first week, through thirty years as a police investigator and a radical change in career. “I came by to try it after the place opened and it was good, so I just kept coming,” Zaken says, shaking his head with a surprised smile when it is pointed out to him that he has eaten this falafel for 40 years.
It is, Zaken says, “one of the top three falafels in town.”
Motti, in jeans and an open-collared white shirt, is happy to share the secret of his success. In 1914, his father walked from Yemen to The Land of Israel, picking up culinary tips along the way.
“The original falafel is Egyptian,” the senior Maabari says, “but what we have here is the best version. It has elements of each county in the Middle East.”
Maabari claims to be the first to have offered hilbe, a nutty Yemenite paste made from fenugreek seeds, as an accompaniment to a falafel wrap, and also the green chili paste known as skhug, that is now a mainstay of Israeli falafel joints.
The Maabari lachuch, however, may be unique to the entire country, and offers a startlingly fresh version of falafel. Encased in the fragile, spongy, yeasty skillet bread, the hot and crunchy balls of falafel tinged with spicy heat and deep umami, reveals itself to be an entirely different dish.
Let’s call it the Israeli version of this years’ trendy crazy waffles.
Recipe adapted from “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2½ cups warm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons sugar
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground fenugreek
Canola oil (for frying)
- Mix yeast with warm water in a large bowl and let stand until slightly bubbly, about 5 minutes.
Add flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and fenugreek and stir to combine. Mixture should resemble pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm spot in the kitchen until surface of mixture is dotted with bubbles, about 1 hour. (In a cold kitchen it will take longer.)
- Brush an omelet pan with canola oil just to coat. Set over medium heat and pour batter into pan. Cook until brown on bottom and set on top, 4-8 minutes. Do not flip over. Repeat, brushing pan with more oil between cooking each bread.