In my hometown, there’s a club called the Bridge. It stretches over two floors. On the top floor are the beautiful rich boys and girls, racing back and forth from bar to dance floor to smoking area and kissing in the corridors. On the bottom floor you’ll find a seething, humping mass of sweaty bodies, writhing desperately to thumping (and shit) R & B.
Nights at the Bridge inevitably end with inexplicably sticky hands and the lingering aftertastes of aniseed, body odour and regret. Most people wash them away with a sea of grease from one of the less salubrious kebab vans that dot Oxford’s streets, but to me the lumps of gristle and animal tubing that make up the average kebab could never quite cut it. I needed something which could help fight off those feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Something, god forbid, vegetarian.
I experimented with onion rings, with hateful garlic mushrooms which spurted hot & stinking liquid like tiny sulphurous geysers. I toyed with chips and with hummous, but both left me feeling leaden and nauseous as they swam in 40% seas.
I’m not sure why the squat bucket of falafel mix that sat between the deep-fry cages and the shaved trunks of compressed kebab meat passed unnoticed so long. It seems odd given that they were probably amongst very few things homemade at Ahmed’s little van on St Giles, but they’d totally escaped my notice until a friend went through a concerted vegetarian effort.
He failed dramatically after two weeks by devouring a hog roast with almost indecent pleasure, but in his flirtation with the Other Side he changed one thing indelibly. Never again would I drop £3 on a seeping burger or the ticking carbohydrate bomb that is chips in pitta. My life was changed. From now on I would settle for nothing less than falafel – crisp on the outside, fluffy innards, spicy, salty and aromatic, the falafel hurdled every obstacle my suffering stomach presented.
My version is aromatic and hot. An all too often fair criticism of the humble falafel is that it tastes of too little and is essentially boring. I’d argue that you could say the same thing about potatoes if you’d only ever had them boiled. Falafel are a blank canvas, so don’t take my word as gospel. They’re made to be fucked around with. Like silly putty or huge foam hands.
You will need some sort of whizzer for this. Oh, and if you’re making these with a girlfriend with wandering hands, really don’t wear black jeans. There’s still the ghost of a tiny handprint on mine.
Stop falafelling about. Let’s cook.
Pan-fried falafels with red onion relish & coriander sauce
For the falafel
- 3 x 400g tins of chickpeas
- Garlic – 8 or 9 plump cloves, crushed
- A good big pinch or two (I guess about 3 teaspoons) of ground coriander
- Similar of cumin
- And the same again of black pepper
- A big pinch of dried chilli flakes
- Salt, to taste
- A smaller pinch (around 1 teaspoon) of ground nutmeg
- Small pinch of ground cloves
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- Plain flour. Quite a bit.
- Handful of chopped parsley
- About a quarter teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
For the red onion relish
- One red onion, sliced
- The juice of one lime
- A little salt
- One garlic clove, very finely chopped
- One birds-eye chilli, de-seeded & very finely chopped
- A small handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
For the coriander sauce
- 300g natural yoghurt
- 100g tahini
- About 1 and a half teaspoons coriander seed
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
- Fresh coriander, finely chopped
First, prepare the relish. In a bowl (or a pint glass if that’s all that’s clean), combine all the ingredients except the parsley. Mix well, cover and refrigerate. The lime juice will take much of the bite out of the raw onion and garlic.
In a food processor or a large bowl, combine the chickpeas, garlic, onion, seasoning and spices. Whiz until smooth before adding the chopped parsley & vigorously stirring in the bicarbonate of soda and enough plain flour to hold the mixture in the bowl if you turn it upside down.
Flour up your hands and a work surface or dish. Roll the falafels into bitesize balls and then pat down into little patties. Heat a little groundnut oil (if you have it. If not, any kind of oil will do) in a big non-stick frying pan over a medium heat until it’s shimmering. Cook the falafel in batches and leave to cool on a kitchen towel. If you need to heat them up again before service, just whack them in the oven on a medium-low heat for five minutes.
Whilst the falafel are cooking, prepare the coriander sauce. In a pestle and mortar, crush the coriander seed with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Combine all the ingredients in a pan and warm through. As soon as you see the first bubble rise and pop, turn the heat down. Keep stirring regularly and serve warm.
Mix the parsley into your red onion relish and serve everything messily in flat breads with a cold beer.