My Word: Fly the flag, fry the felafel

The ups and downs of the felafel serve as a pre-Independence Day reminder of how far we have come.

flying falafel 298 (photo credit: )
flying falafel 298
(photo credit: )
Felafel seems to be rolling back into fashion. Not necessarily the food, which has always suited Israeli tastes and habits, the song. All last week, Israel Radio played the seminal ode to the national dish: Shir Hafelafel (The Felafel Song) made famous by singer Nissim Gerame many decades ago.
The song, like the dish, has not staled with the passing years, and it is particularly refreshing that it has bounced back on the airwaves in its entirety and not as background to a commercial – the fate of so many good songs.
Every country here in the worldhas a national dish that’s known to all,and every kindergarten child knows thata meal of macaroni is Italian.Austrians in Vienna have tasty schnitzeland the French eat frogsthe Chinese eat thin, fine rice,and the cannibals eat one another.And we have felafel,felafel, felafel...with lots and lots and lots of pepper....
The song of praise to the king of blue-and-white, healthy junk food was written by Dan Almagor and set to music by Moshe Wilensky, both close to being national icons themselves. Almagor obviously had his tongue in his cheek, probably smothered with tehina, as he wrote the anthem, long before the age of political correctness (which is still not Israel’s forte). But felafel joints are as much a part of the local scene as the neighborhood grocer, and are, in fact, faring better.
The dish, however, has undergone an image makeover indicative of the changes the country itself has undergone in the past 62 years. There are now establishments which sell felafel served with a side dish of roasted peppers, tomatoes and a yogurt dressing, for example, which, in the “good old days” of austerity would have seemed unimaginable, or certainly not in good taste.
A couple of years ago, I reviewed David Sela’s Abba shelcha lo zagag (“Your father’s not a glazier”), a Hebrew anthology of “nostalgic idioms” that serves as a social history. There I found, for example, the phrase “ochel bemitbah hapoalim,” “eats in the workers’ cafeteria,” which referred to someone who was broke and harks back to the days when, as Sela notes, workers in the Jewish state were actually Jewish, and cheap kitchens were set up to provide the poorest with basic food. This was the same sort of person about whom it was said “ochel pita im perurim” (“he eats pita with crumbs”) referring to the practice of cheaply selling the felafel crumbs when the fried balls of chickpeas really were the national staple.
In those days, friends would claim: “achalnu me’oto mesting,” “We ate from the same mess tin bowl,” a phrase that is disappearing as basic training camps move over to outside caterers. However, as Post defense reporter Yaakov Katz has revealed, following the harsh criticism by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, the Defense Ministry has decided to drastically cut back the planned budget for its annual Independence Day celebration. Guests at this week’s party, personally hosted by Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, will be served felafel, humous, pita and soft drinks instead of a catered meal like last Yom Ha’atzmaut. So if an army marches on its stomach, at least this year it is felafel which is setting the pace, a welcome reminder of the age of innocence as the scandal surrounding alleged soldier-spy Anat Kamm continues to ruin the holiday spirit. (Incidentally, an officer’s pips in Hebrew are known as felafelim.)
A LARGE NUMBER of entries in Sela’s book refer to the period of economic hardship but social togetherness like “mevashlim baprozdor,” “cooking in the corridor,” referring to those who could afford to rent a room but did not have access to a kitchen.
We have come a long way since then, I mused the other day, wandering down Jerusalem’s trendy Rehov Emek Refaim; however, not many “ordinary” Israelis can afford an apartment there – even without built-in cooking facilities.
The picturesque main road where locals once could buy just about anything they needed is now a beautiful thoroughfare, albeit threatened by real-estate plans, mainly lined by fancy food establishments – from Far Eastern to Italian – and, for some strange reason, boutique opticians. There is also a McDonald’s (not yet kosher), some pizza parlors, many coffee shops and specialty chocolatiers (are they chocolate bars?). And, yes, there on the corner is one of the capital’s best-known felafel joints.
The real-estate interests, highlighted in the Holyland affair, reminded me of several different expressions – not all of them publishable in a family paper – including achalnu ota (literally “we’ve eaten it” used to imply “we’ve been had”), and krovim letzalahat, those “close to the plate,” who by implication are well-placed to satisfy their greed. But, again, why destroy the holiday mood?
If you are what you eat, I’m not sure what that makes Israelis. Our tastes have definitely diversified as we travel abroad further and in greater numbers than ever before, but our comfort food is certainly not haute cuisine. Some would say it’s not even Israeli.
This being the Middle East, even the food is fought over. Last year saw “the Third Lebanon War,” the battle between Israel and its northern neighbor ostensibly for the Guinness record for the largest batch of humous in the world. In January, we won the last round when Abu Ghosh restaurateur Jawdat Ibrahim produced more than four tons, served under the slogan “Pothim Tzalahat Lashalom,” which literally means “opening a plate for peace” but can be best translated as “spreading peace.” With those quantities of humous being dished out, it was probably the nearest you can get to gas warfare served with a smile.
The Lebanese were forced to swallow their national pride (for now), having waged a campaign to claim exclusive ownership of the dish as a Lebanese culinary asset.
During the second intifada, in the early 2000s, market researchersfound a surge in the sales of Israeli fast food such as felafel andhumous. They explained that the threat of Palestinian suicide bomberssomewhat dampened appetites, so fewer people were eating leisurelymeals in restaurants. And the recession, too, took a toll, forcingpeople to choose cheaper options.
Felafel has even been the star of the silver screen – just one sign ofthe growing prowess of the Israeli cinema industry. Ari Sandel’sWest Bank Story, which PostHollywood correspondent Tom Tugend noted “may not be as well known as[Clint] Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, but is alot funnier,” was a cause for national pride when it won an AcademyAward in 2007 in the Best Short Film – Live Action category. The plotinvolves rival West Bank felafel stands, the Israeli Kosher King andthe Palestinian Humous Hut.
Would that all the wars could be fought in such good taste. But, sadly,there are a lot of enemies out there who would love to devour ourbite-sized state rather than “Give chickpeas a chance,” as Israeliblogger and humous fan Shooky Galili puts it.
On Independence Day, those who seek our destruction can eat their hearts out. I’ll opt for a felafel.