While the exact origins of falafel are unknown, there are many popular theories. Most of these theories agree that falafel was developed in Egypt. However, the subject of when and by whom is rather contested. Some maintain that it dates back about 1,000 years to the Egyptian Copts, who brought it with them from the Middle East. Others say that falafel can from India in the 6th century.
The claim that Indian cooking may have influenced the invention of falafel is reasonable. There are many fried foods in India that predate falafel and that are similar in shape and consistency.
One of the more accepted theories places the invention of falafel in more modern times, in the late 19th century. This is about the time when the dish started appearing in Egyptian literature, right after the British occupation in 1882. According to this theory, British officers enjoyed fried vegetable croquettes when they were in India and asked their Egyptian cooks to prepare a version with local ingredients.
It is believed that falafel first emerged in Alexandria, the principal port of Egypt and the city with the largest concentration of European troops. Unlike many of the popular versions served in today’s falafel restaurants, this first falafel was made with fava beans. As the name for fava beans in Egyptian is ful, it is believed that the word falafel comes from these original Mediterranean recipes.
The original Egyptian dish was made with fava beans; as falafel moved northward, cooks substituted chickpeas. Until recently, the most notable contribution to its evolution has been to cram novel accompaniments, from shredded beets to French fries, into falafel sandwiches.
When chickpeas are used, they are not cooked prior to use (cooking the chickpeas will cause the falafel to fall apart, requiring adding some flour to use as a binder). Instead they are soaked (sometimes with baking soda) overnight, then ground together with various ingredients such as parsley, scallions, and garlic. Spices such as cumin and coriander are often added to the beans for added flavor. The dried fava beans are soaked in water and then stone ground with leek, parsley, green coriander, cumin and dry coriander. The mixture is shaped into balls or patties. This can be done by hand or with a tool called an aleb falafel (falafel mould). The mixture is usually deep fried, or it can be oven baked.
Falafel is typically ball-shaped, but is sometimes made in other shapes, particularly doughnut-shaped. The inside of falafel may be green (from green herbs such as parsley or green onion), or tan.
When served as a sandwich, falafel is often wrapped with flatbread or stuffed in a hollow pita, or it can be served with flat or unleavened bread. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other garnishes can be added. Falafel is commonly accompanied by tahini sauce.
When made with chickpeas, falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B, and folate. Phytochemicals include beta-carotene. Falafel is high in soluble fiber, which has been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol.
The current record, 74.75 kg (164 lb 12+3⁄4 oz), was set on 28 July 2012 in Amman, Jordan. The previous record was 23.94 kg (52 lb 12+1⁄2 oz), 1.17 m (3 ft 10 in) in circumference and 0.3 m (1 ft) in diameter, set at the Santa Clarita Valley Jewish Food and Cultural Festival (US), at the College of the Canyons in Valencia, California, US, on 15 May 2011.