I recently had a hankering for some falafel. A handful of fast-food style restaurants in Cotonou, about 90 minutes away, sell falafel. But on top of being far away, they overcharge for dry, under seasoned falafel on imported, bland pita. I thought I could do better.
Dried chickpeas are hard to find. I saw them once in a supermarket in Cotonou but they were expensive and I didn’t splurge at the time. Instead I decided to use a similarly sized and shaped bean that is common in our market.
My pal Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything gave me the recipes necessary. Did you know that falafel patties are made with raw mashed beans? I didn’t. I got started by soaking my beans overnight in water. Next I had to figure out how to mash them without a food processor. I could have had the beans ground by our local grinder but they add water to help items pass through the grinder without getting stuck. The recipe says not to add water and to leave the mashed beans as dry as possible. So I went at it by hand with my pilon. One of our neighbors helped me by keeping the chickens at bay and offering general encouragement.
After mashing them in my mortar and pestle I combined the beans with garlic, onion, ground coriander, ground cumin, baking soda, lemon juice, salt and pepper. A heap of parsley or cilantro would have been a nice addition but will have to wait until we plant it in our garden.
Next I turned my attention to the pita. Bittman’s recipe calls for baking the bread in an oven. I could have gone with the dutch oven method, but would have had to cook one pita at a time because of the size of our pan. This would have taken half the day and heated our living room to sauna-like temperatures. Instead I cooked the pitas one at a time in a nonstick pan on the stove top. Each one took less than three minutes. They puffed up nicely and came out great – light and airy but still chewy.
Luckily I have tahini in my life thanks to the robust Lebanese population in Cotonou. Tahini sauce (again via Bittman) provided a great counterpoint to the fried falafel. Pickled red onions (recipe from, yes, Bittman) and sautéed greens with cumin seeds and garlic (I forget where I got this recipe but it’s a go-to) provided some vegetable relief. Voilà.
Ever seen your neighbor on his front porch taking pictures of his toe nail clippings? Carefully holding them up and photographing them over and over? What kind of look would you give him? That’s the look my neighbors give me as I stand outside taking pictures of the food we’re about to eat. Inside is too dark so I have no choice. Digital cameras are rare here and food is fuel, not craft. Usually I’ll get a cursory “What is that?” along with the toenail-clipping-glance. I’ve been giving out samples of what I’ve cooked. Mostly the neighbors smile and thank me but don’t ask for more. The pita, though, was a hit. Two neighbors asked me to teach them how to make it.* The falafel they barely touched. Their loss.
*Several weeks later, the two neighbors came over and we made pita bread together. I offered to teach them to make hummus or falafel or baba ghanoush. As is common here they didn’t outright refuse but instead said, “Some other time.” They told me they intended to eat their pita with ja, one of the versions of spicy tomato sauce often eaten here.