17 | Jun | 13

Richard Johnson

Hummus Where The Heart Is

The Middle East has yet another dispute to settle — this time, it’s hummus. The Lebanese are galled about the supermarkets calling it “an Israeli dish” when they see it as theirs. Now they want protected status for the divine paste of chickpeas, garlic, tahini and lemon (the way that the Greeks did for Feta Cheese). And they’re coming after falafel next. I’m off to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later this week to try and get to the bottom of it all for the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4. But before I go, I decided to treat myself to lunch at Hoxton Beach — just to remember what all the fuss is about.

Muslims go to the mosque on Friday – it’s a special day for prayer. The Hoxton Beach falafel stall, pitched up next to the mosque in London’s Goodge Street, always does well on Fridays. Patrick and Rashid roll their fresh, crisp little fritters tightly into a wrap. It makes them easier to hold. “In the Middle East you drive with one hand, and eat your falafel wrap with the other” says Patrick – judging by the noises of approval, his customers won’t be driving anywhere anytime soon….

Patrick is busy dealing with a long queue. It’s the lunch-time rush. “And I’m not as fast as the people who work for me” he says. “I’m certainly not as fast as Rashid and Hussein. Rashid makes wraps so quickly you can’t see his hands move. But he is like ‘I do not do the washing-up’. Everyone wants to be a star in the falafel game, I tell you. But if you’re not careful, you end up as an agent for your stars – with no business left to run.”

Wherever you go in the Middle East – whether it’s Jerusalem, Gaza, Beirut or Cairo – you can find falafel. It should be a food that unites. But it isn’t. Things turned nasty when the Israelis decided to make falafel their ‘national snack’. The Palestinians said that falafel wasn’t ‘Israeli’ – what with Israel only coming into existence in 1948 and all – and that falafel had originated in ancient Egypt. They felt that an Arabic dish was being stripped of its true origins.

The difficulties didn’t end there. Nobody could agree on an authentic recipe for falafel. The Christian Copts – believed to be the descendents of the ancient Egyptians – make falafel with fava beans. But the rest of the world uses chickpeas. Or a mix of the two. “Falafel is very diverse” says Patrick. “Sudanese falafel, for instance, uses dill. And it’s not just about different countries – it’s about different households. Some people like citrus peel. The world of falafel is very confusing.”

Patrick knows what he’s talking about. He’s been making falafel for years. He fell in love with it when he was studying Arabic in Syria. “I remember feeling that this food was incredibly healthly – all those vegetables. And incredibly delicious and cheap. I ate falafel every day. And then I got completely sick of it. Then I discovered this other thing – Syrian brain sandwich. I don’t know what kind of brain it was, sheep’s brain I think, but it was very good.”

Less marketable in the UK, however, than falafel. The delicious little fritters cost pennies to make, and taste so much better than the dried-up offerings that are sold in the supermarkets. And it helped that Patrick’s start-up costs were tiny. “All I needed was a fryer” says Patrick. “Any kind of fryer.” Then there was the falafel maker – “a scoop, which I picked up from an Arab shop down the Edgware Road.” And the ingredients. He was ready to make falafel.

Hackney council, however, weren’t ready. In fact, they didn’t want him to make falafel at all. “But we found a legal loophoole” says Patrick. “If you’re seven metres from a road, you can trade. Someone pointed out that in Hoxton Square there was a huge car park that would be perfect.” So he set up shop in one of the coolest parts of London. He sold falafel as a late-night thing. “People coming out of bars and clubs? Feeling rough? I thought ‘Vaguely healthy food – they’ll like that’ And they did”.

Patrick changed the business plan along the way – what started off as ‘Mandola Falafel’ became ‘Hoxton Beach’ with the addition of a string of fairy lights and some deckchairs. But the basics – that good falafel had to be fresh, and made with the best ingredients – stayed the same. “I remember we found ourselves in competition with a guy who was selling ready-made falafel. You’re bound to do better if you make it fresh. The smells – the performance. So we took all his business. Simple.”

There are now two Hoxton Beach stalls in London. And a wholesale business, supplying health food shops and supermarkets. Patrick doesn’t seem entirely comfortable, mass producing food that should be hand-made. “But if you do mechanise the process” he says, “you have to change the recipe to suit the needs of the machine. The mixture has got to be stiffer than if you’re making it by hand, otherwise the falafel will end up like bullets. I can’t have that.”

Patrick is a calm, happy man. Unless you ask him to serve your falafel in a pitta bread. “Outrageous idea” he says. “And impractical. You munch your way through salad, then you get to the falafel – it’s never all properly mixed. By which time the sauce will have slopped all over the place and the pitta will be coming apart. It’s uncontrolled. We just use the system that is universal throughout the Middle East – the flatbread, rolled up into a wrap.”

Come to think of it, Patrick doesn’t much like the way that, in the West, we insist on slathering hummus over our falafel either. He prefers to chase each bite of crisp falafel with a drizzle of chili sauce, and a bite of his home-made pickles; the vegetables provide a finishing blast of acid, as important to the falafel as a squeeze of lime is to pho and tacos. To Patrick, serving hummus with falafel is like serving chick peas with chick peas on the side – a bad idea. And too much for the body to digest.

Middle Eastern street food is about so much more than falafel and hummus. There are wraps of succulent grilled meat, served with tabbouleh, tomato and cucumber – and flatbread pizzas, topped with ground lamb seasoned with cumin, coriander and garlic. Men and women walk round picking at skewers of offal, and pitta breads crammed with grilled aubergine, boiled egg and mango sauce. “We’ve got so much to learn from the Middle East” says Patrick. “But we’re getting there.”