Smalls balls, big subject: falafel's popularity surge in Sydney and Melbourne

Israeli-style falafel at Shuk Falafel in Bondi.
Israeli-style falafel at Shuk Falafel in Bondi. Photo: Christopher Pearce

It's the Middle Eastern street food that has become a breakout culinary star over the past 12 months. While falafel wasn't exactly labouring in obscurity pre-pandemic, its comfort-food factor – plus new restaurants focused on the deep-fried balls – have helped propel its popularity into a new stratosphere around the country. 

When Sydney's Merivale hospitality empire muscles in on the falafel scene you know there's something in the air. Jimmy's Falafel has been a hit since opening in Merivale's Ivy precinct on George Street in May, with staff clad in T-shirts proclaiming, "The future is falafel" and serving a product Herald chief restaurant critic Terry Durack declared "so good you could live on them".

Owners Yoni Kalfus and German Sanchez at Shuk Falafel in Bondi.
Owners Yoni Kalfus and German Sanchez at Shuk Falafel in Bondi. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Over in Bondi, the big news legume-based snacking was the permanent metamorphosis of the Middle Eastern pop-up cafe Shuk, becoming Shuk Falafel in December. Owner Yoni Kalfus attributes the popularity of falafel to a perfect storm. 

There's the wellness movement, the rise of vegans and vegetarians, and the "Ottolenghi effect" – referring to English-Israeli chef turned household name Yotam Ottolenghi, who has popularised Middle Eastern food for an everyday audience.

"It's a great vegan protein but also really popular with carnivores who don't feel like they're missing out on something when they're eating it," he says. "You can't say that about much fast food."

Falafel at Shuk Falafel, Bondi Beach.
Falafel at Shuk Falafel, Bondi Beach. Photo: Supplied

Falafel was once the monocultural go-to for vegetarians visiting the Lebanese-run kebab shop, but the distinctive regional variations being witnessed across Australia are testament to its peripatetic origins.

Those origins are shrouded in mystery and seasoned with a dash of controversy, but falafel is most commonly believed to have eventuated in Egypt where the fried balls of minced pulses and herbs were popular with Coptic Christians forgoing meat for Lent. 

The Egyptians favoured fava beans (otherwise known as broad beans) but as the dish travelled it took on new guises. The Israelis embraced chickpeas as their pulse of choice while the Lebanese adopted a mix of fava and chickpeas. 

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"The fava beans make it a beautiful green," says Nabil Hassan of Melbourne's proudly Egyptian falafel specialist Half Moon Cafe. "I won't give you my recipe, but there's only about 5 per cent of chickpeas to give it a bit of crunch."

Choosing your falafel goes well beyond the fava versus chickpea divide. Some recipes call for plenty of cumin; others eschew it altogether. Coriander seed is another addition to many mixes, along with garlic, while fresh herbs such as parsley, coriander and mint are ubiquitous. 

To wrap it, Israelis prefer a pita pocket while Lebanese falafel fans go for a slightly thicker flatbread. And while hummus is a given, beyond that the moveable feast includes tahini – preferably creamy with a tangy balance of sesame paste, lemon and garlic – the fresh salad ingredients and pickled turnips of a Lebanese falafel, and the pickled dill cucumbers of the Egyptian version. 

A falafel plate at Just Felafs in Fitzroy North, Melbourne.
A falafel plate at Just Felafs in Fitzroy North, Melbourne. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The Israelis, meanwhile, electrify the falafel's central nervous system with the addition of the Yemenite green chilli sauce known as zhug; they might even throw in a fenugreek-driven Iraqi mango pickle known as amba ("It's the special sauce," says Kalfus).

Whichever way you swing, falafel's universal appeal was codified last year when it was adapted as an emoji on the Apple and Google platforms. But another significant geo-political fissure has opened up in the form of a Sydney-Melbourne divide. 

Melbourne can claim to have been ahead of Sydney's modern falafel curve, with inner-suburban trendsters Very Good Falafel opening in 2016, and Just Falafs plus high-octane Israeli import Miznon in 2017. 

Just Falafs' Troy Christou took his inspiration from his travels, when he encountered the popular falafel bars of Barcelona, Paris and New York and decided to parlay his Ottolenghi obsession into bricks-and-mortar form. "It's those flavours… we taste-tested with friends and family for 18 months before we opened to get it right".

Falafel might be trendy to the max today, but trends weren't at the forefront of Abdul Ghazal's mind when he began selling Lebanese-style falafel in 1968 with his father in Sydney's Surry Hills. The owner of Jasmins in Lakemba – often namechecked as Sydney's best – can distil his decades of experience into one simple precept: "It's healthy, it fills you up and it's nice… what more do you want?" 

Six great places for falafel

MELBOURNE

Just Falafs 207 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North

It's not just a pun-tastic name; the Israeli-style falafel is fluffy and delicious, while the punchy sumac-sprinkled salads and pickled cabbage go the extra mile. justfalafs.com.au

Half Moon Cafe 13 Victoria Street, Coburg 

Look for the window display of Egyptology, pause to admire the deftness of the cook forming then frying herby-good falafel, then join the queue. No web.

Very Good Falafel 629 Sydney Road, Brunswick

The combined forces of Israeli expat Shuki Rosenboim and Louisa Allan, who grew up on a grain and pulse farm in the Mallee, results in some seriously good falafel and a hummus worth travelling for. shukiandlouisa.com

SYDNEY

Jasmins 30B Haldon Street, Lakemba

There are imitators around Sydney but the original at Lakemba is a beacon of consistently great Lebanese-style falafel. No web.

Shuk Falafel Shop G07/180 Campbell Parade, Bondi

Expand your falafel horizons to this proudly authentic Israeli version with amba, the Iraqi mango pickle – or double down on the body-beautiful Bondi location with a hummus and falafel bowl. shuk.com.au

Jimmy's Falafel 312 George St, Sydney

Merivale knows how to deliver a good-times pita party. Sesame-crusted and full of fresh herbs, these falafels have substance as well as style. merivale.com/venues/jimmys-falafel