Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka
Falafel is a staple of both Palestinian and vegan cooking. Made of chickpeas and parsley, they are high in protein and should be all-natural. A perfect falafel should have a crunchy shell, and inside be scented with herbs and a hint of cumin. It should ideally be eaten straight from the deep fryer, scalding the roof of your mouth whilst attempting to consume it. Falafel sit pride-of-place in a mezze (a selection of small dishes), but also serve as a delightful snack: a hit of warmth and flavour to liven up the day.
I want you to throw away your Tesco-bought falafel. They are a pale imitation of the real thing. Warming them up in the oven won’t help you; eating them cold is a travesty. They shouldn’t even be called falafel. If it isn’t hot and crisp, it doesn’t deserve the name. In an effort to educate, I have collated a review of the best falafel spots in Oxford. When you need that glorious blast of deep-fried chickpeas, here is where to go.
I’ll start with the obvious: Najar’s. Many of you will have had these famous falafel in an equally-famous wrap, but they deserve the honour of being eaten alone. Najar’s falafel are authentically made with a mechanical device intuitively named a “falafel tool”. This shapes the falafel into their circular form, with the indent being where the prong of the tool pushes the patty out of the mould and into the fryer.
The falafel are often fresh, and are golden in colour, indicating that they have not languished extensively in the fryer. There is the desirable contrast between the crisp outer and soft interior, although this inner is lacking slightly. The inside of an excellent falafel should be speckled with green from the parsley, and should smell of the herb. Najar’s are sadly a little beige: there is little green in sight. Najar’s are a good introduction to the falafel, but you’ll have to do a bit better to find the real thing.
Another spot in which you might have encountered falafel is Hassan’s. Another Oxford staple, falafel and chips is a night-out classic for any veggie. Hassan’s falafel are larger than Najar’s, and are domed ovals darker in colour. They are gloriously greasy, ideal to be lathered in tahini and chilli sauce. They again suffer from a lack of parsley, but after a long night, you’re not too worried about this. Hassan’s are a special breed of falafel. Untraditional but special in their own right, they still fulfil the indulgent nature of falafel.
For those in the know, it will not be a surprise to learn where you can find the best falafel: Za’atar Bake make the falafel of dreams. They are hot, fresh, perfectly crisp, and packed with enough parsley to delight the senses. I should only be reviewing the falafel itself, but I must mention the way in which they are presented. The falafel come in traditional Palestinian pottery bowls, with purple pickled turnip to contrast the mellowness of the falafel. There is a dollop of tahini sauce in the middle, proving that chickpeas and tahini are always a winning combination. It is a work of culinary art, and one that must be tried to be appreciated.
So, falafel. They have found their way into Western culture, but no one really eats them properly. Please stop buying the fickle supermarket imitations and get yourself to Za’atar Bake for a taste of the real thing. In Jerusalem, they have falafel carts selling them fresh to passers-by. Remember, only if it comes directly from the deep-fat fryer does it deserve the name falafel.