Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Peace Through Falafel?

Today, I did something unusual for me. I had lunch at a vegetarian kosher restaurant in downtown Philadelphia called Mama's. It's menu is simple; hummus, falafel, eggplant sandwiches in pitas; latkes; a few side dishes and a few desserts.  So what brought me there?

Simple.  I ate at Mama's because I love good falafel, and Mama's falafel is the best I've ever had; not too hard or soft, not too dry, and full of hearty flavor (which the staff will cheerfully enhance with hot sauce unless you ask them to desist).   So are the pitas they pack the falafel into, which they bake fresh daily and will sell to you for $3.50 USD per half-dozen.  They're wonderful pitas, thick enough not to tear and soft enough to bite easily (though the lack of preservatives means that, back at my home in Chester County, PA, they acquire thriving colonies of mold before long).  

Like many small restaurants in cities, Mama's is physically very unprepossessing.  The restaurant resides in a minimally-maintained brick store front, with an old counter, a few beverage cases, and  a small counter that serves as a condiments bar.  A few (6 or so) battered tables and chairs and a couple more strategically placed outside for customers to use in good weather.  Despite the lack of shine and spiff, the place does land-office business--and by no means just among Jews.  Yes, there were certainly Jewish customers eating there this afternoon;  a nice young man in a white shirt with a black yarmulke bobby-pinned to his hair; a little boy, no more than 8 years old, with a baseball cap and an "Israeli Defense Forces" t-shirt.  But there were also plenty of black office workers, getting their sandwiches to go, and I saw a pair of Chinese American girls, chatting with each other as they ate.   I'd had no idea that so many different people had a love of good falafel (the most common entrée eaten there) in common.

A quick look at Wikipedia's entry on "falafel" confirms that the taste for it has become worldwide.  Falafel, for those readers unfamiliar with the term, is a kind of vegetarian meatball or patty. The patty or ball is made of ground chickpeas or fava beans and then deep fried. it may be eaten as is, or packed into pitas (as Mama's does) and dosed with hot sauce, tahini, hummus, vegetables, whatever.  Interestingly enough, it is believed to have originated in Egypt, but Israelis spread the taste for it first to Europe, then to the United States, sometime in the 1970s.  Nowadays Israelis consider it a national dish, as do the Lebanese and other Arab groups (who apparently ate the stuff first...).

Ah well, so much for my brief dream of peace over lunch.

But I'll keep visiting Mama's as long as they continue to dish out their wonderful falafel.  Good falafel is hard to find.

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