Memories of “place” are rooted in our senses, the filter through which our minds record and interact with the world. In particular, the sensory overload of food can jolt a person into remembering even the dullest minutiae from another life. The climatic scene of Pixar’s Ratatouille, for example, shows the insurmountably cantankerous food critic remembering a loving memory of his mother upon tasting the dish prepared by the protagonist.
Growing up in the Palestinian Occupied Territories made falafel an every day occurrence. In my village of Al-Mezra Al-Sherkia, there is a vendor right across the street, meaning that at my whim I had access to fresh falafel. Fried on the spot, lightly dusted with sumac, salt and sesame seeds, steam is visible rising off the crunchy surface. It comes stuffed in a pocket pita with all manner of condiments: pickled turnips, onions, tahini sauce, cucumbers, red pepper paste… the list goes on, as we are a fan of sandwich accoutrement where I am from. Even french fries are stuffed into the sandwich, rather than suffer having them on the side.
I live in Philadelphia now, not the West Bank, and if represented on a Venn diagram, the sensory overlap between the two would look much like the eye of a needle. That is to say, not very large at all. Food sits in that tiny overlap, taking me back to distant memories eating falafel in the summer on the sidewalk, watching men and women dance debka at my cousin’s wedding. Falafel is not merely a niche street food that I enjoy for sustenance and a taste of the “exotic.” It is a way through which I experience and live my cultural heritage and my memories of home.
After listening to my constant critiques of every falafel sandwich I come across, Miranda suggested I write about them. So, I have decided to start a new series on Al-Bustan’s blog, where I will try the falafel sandwiches at different restaurants across Philadelphia and write about each of them in a post, offering meticulous, yet informed critique. The only factor that will eliminate a falafel joint from consideration is if it is an established chain. Sorry Maoz/Falafel Factory, homegrown Philly-fare only. If you have a suggestion, please, leave a comment! My first post will focus on the standard fare for falafel in West Philadelphia: Saad’s Halal at 45th and Walnut. Stay tuned, Philly.