London Falafel: Ancient History & Argentine Chickpeas

By Amara Sao (London).Amara visits Yasser, her favorite falafel vendor. She finds a man who migrated to London and decided to be his own boss, making and serving the falafel he ate as a child. A man with a laid-back attitude and a kind smile, he serves up his tasty chickpea patties with a chain of suppliers he knows supporting him.

A Quick Look: The owner and his stall

Name: Yasser
Stall location: Earlam Street, London, UK
Established: In 2011, having realised he could, and wanted to, be his own boss, making Lebanese falafel
Stall operating times and days: Monday through Friday 12 pm – 15:00 or when sold out.
Lebanese Falafel in London. from The Miracle of Feeding Cities on Vimeo.

How & When Lebanese Falafel Arrived to Earlham Street

Falafel is quickly becoming an international staple in many diets in the Western world. Imported from the Middle East, this highly politicised food finds its way to the narrow and limited food market located on Earlham Street in London’s West End in Covent Garden. This story about falafel, specifically Lebanese falafel, won’t be addressing the politicised side that the food has come to symbolise between particular cultures. Rather, it will aim to illustrate from where Yasser, our stall owner, sources the ingredients that make falafel. Most of the ingredients come from various places and through different channels, from all over the world, to create Yasser’s authentic Lebanese falafel as he has known it when growing up in Lebanon. Don’t be mistaken, falafel isn’t exactly ‘new’ to London, not even Britain, but it has seen a marked surge in popularity in the last few years this side of the pond. In New York, of America’s East Coast, falafel wraps have been a modern staple for quite some time (See NYTimes article, NPR story for evidence of long established stronghold of falafel outside of today’s Middle East and North African countries). Long before its journey to London, falafel has been travelling with people from ancient Egypt, transforming with every culture that encounters it, through to Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon – just to name a few. Falafel has been written about as a source of contention between many different nations, particularly Israel and Palestine. Articles often address claims laid to falafel by modern Israeli (via the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt), Palestinian, modern Egyptians, and by Lebanese.

However, here in London where Yasser sells his falafel to many loyal customers on their lunch break, there is no mention of “our falafel” or the origins necessarily. The topic of origin is something that actively gets drawn into our discussion by way of my interview questions posed to Yasser. Yet we seldom discuss history, for Yasser, falafel in London – the Lebanese way – was something he commonly ate while in Lebanon. It was only until 3 years ago that Yasser decided to share this fried patty of deliciousness, out of his desire to work for himself, and he is quite happy doing that without much focus on the historical and controversial political attachment whatsoever.

Meanwhile, on Earlham Street the regular group of food stalls set up every weekday morning, along side Yasser, to serve the hungry lunch crowds of Covent Garden. Yasser meets his brother on Earlham Street at roughly 9-9:30 am to begin setting up the falafel stall. Yasser’s brother drives the car, which contains: the stall marquee, most of the food, and supplies to complete the stall. Yasser arrives by public transport to meet his brother each day. They unpack, and Yasser stays to set-up for the day. It helps that Yasser and his brother have a close relationship–the element of reliance and trust between the two is crucial in order for the weekday running and success of the stall to continue week-to-week.

When asked, Yasser says that since starting up the stall three years ago, he has not encountered many, if any, issues when it came to transport and punctuality with his brother and the supplies. Quite frankly, Yasser is such an easy going person, that I can’t imagine he would be fussed by any issues that arise. I, and many of my friends, have personally frequented the falafel stall since about day one. Yasser has never disappointed unless he has sold out for the day. Yet, Yasser has mentioned that much of the success of the stall’s day-to-day falafel sales are quite dependent on weather. He quite obviously says, “When it is sunny, it’s very busy…” or “…if I need to miss a day for whatever reason, no one else runs the stall.” So he has the choice to be there, and if he chooses not to, or he can’t make it, he loses out on that day’s worth of trading. He mentioned one of the days he had to miss in April, and it was one of the busiest days that week for the other stalls; but he said, “I couldn’t miss this dentist appointment, I rescheduled so many times…” but still, “no worries, no worries,” he assures me.

Yasser's ingredients, lined up in shiny silver bowls as he assembled falafel for hungry customers.

Yasser’s ingredients, lined up in shiny silver bowls as he assembles falafel for hungry customers.

Ingredients, Suppliers, Relationships

Not having a consistent supply of ingredients for his falafel is probably the least of Yasser’s concerns. It’s more likely to be a problem for the unlucky few, who eagerly waits all that time before lunch break, dreaming of falafel, to find out there are none left when they arrive at Yasser’s stall that day: I would know.

When asked about his suppliers, Yasser gives no indication that sourcing has ever been an issue for him in the last three years running the stall. The Lebanese ingredients that make up falafel wraps–cumin, tahini sauce (essential), chilli, turnips, and gerkins–are sourced from North London’s ‘Lebanese Food’ in Park Royal; an area which is home to quite a large Lebanese community. Yasser says he has never had any problems sourcing any ingredients for his falafel and that he has a great relationship with the supplier at ‘Lebanese Food’. They also supply Yasser’s bi-weekly 25-kilo order of chickpeas; however, those arrive in London via Argentina because it is cheaply grown there. The casual and confident manner by which Yasser offers up his answers to my questions of supply is very telling of how sophisticated a system our food gets transported, so seemingly simple and effortless. As if there is no worry as to when the next shipment will arrive, if at all, Yasser is confident that it will each time.

Falafel, is believed to be an ancient Egyptian food, instead, using fava beans as the pulse. The Jews enslaved in Egypt adopted falafel and were believed to be the first to put the falafel in unleavened bread (hence the tradition of having falafel wrapped in Pita). Yet, today in London, along with the traditional ingredients that would go in the falafel wraps from Lebanese tradition, are now some ingredients that don’t normally go into the wraps, but Yasser includes because customers like it. Hummus, for example. People really like doubling up on their chickpea intake; falafel and hummus dip. Also people really like aubergine (which are Dutch, grown in the Netherlands), cauliflower, garlic sauce, and chilli sauce. Most of this gets wrapped up nice and tight in the pita bread (baked in North London).

It’s clear that even ‘authentic’ foods, like Lebanese falafel, are made from ingredients that are not necessarily derived from the country of origin. Our food system is globalised, and even since ancient times, people moved and migrated and with that their culinary traditions went with them. Even so, other cultures adopt and adapt these cuisines to form something similar but uniquely their own. Although the political and historical debate over falafel will likely not end anytime soon, most can agree that falafel is simply delicious, with a not so simple history. Yasser and the success of his falafel stall shows us the increasing speed, and almost ease, by which we can introduce new cuisines into this ever expanding and changing city. Simply by his being in London and the events that have brought, or even pushed, him to come here, all have made him an active agent in feeding this city. On this small road, in the West End of London, Yasser’s story tells us of the thought, care, labour, historical and cultural journey upon which an aspect of Lebanese cuisine makes its way into the bellies of many culturally diverse Londoners, through falafel.

Posted in London