Not long ago, Mohamed Elrafal decided to trade his antiques business for a spotless new street cart, which to this untrained eye looks as if it’s painted deep Egyptian blue. The color would be only appropriate. Elrafal is a native of Egypt, and his cart, Ali Baba’s Falafel, located on the corner of Willow Lane and Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda,serves up the Egyptian version of this street food.
For those who have only sampled the Palestinian/Israeli version of falafel —- you know, the kind basically peddled at places as divergent as Amsterdam Falafelshop in Adams Morgan and Max’s Kosher Cafe in Wheaton —- you’re in for a surprise. Or three.
First off, the fried balls, once you bite into them, reveal a vivid emerald interior, the result of the snack’s main ingredient—-fava beans, not the standard chickpeas found in the Palestinian/Israeli iteration. (Ali Baba’s falafel is split about 90-10, favoring the fava bean over the chickpea.) The favas give the fried balls a softer, moister texture, which may disappoint those who have come to anticipate (and love) that first-bite crunch of the chickpea version.
Egyptian falafel also doesn’t mess with a condiments bar, which is not to say that your sandwich won’t include a few flavors from the garden. My small wrap from Ali Baba’s came stuffed with shredded pieces of lettuce (Romaine?) and pickled veggies, as well as a generous squirt or two of tahini sauce. It was all wrapped in a grilled, whole-wheat pita, which regrettably began to assume cardboardlike qualities the longer it was away from the grill.
Nordin Grabsi, Elrafal’s partner in Ali Baba’s, is also the cook. He’ll provide you with the all-important accompaniment to your falafel —- a small, foil-wrapped collection of pickled carrot coins, cauliflower florets, red pepper strips, and other veggies. You chase each fresh, garlicky bite of falafel with a bite of pickled vegetable; the veggies provide that finishing blast of acid, as important to Egyptian falafel as a squirt of lime to pho or Mexican-style tacos.
All together, it makes for one great street-food experience, even with the crummy, wooden commercial pita wrapper, which Grabsi is hoping to switch out soon. Just give him time; Ali Baba’s has been open only a week or so.
If the fava/Egyptian vs. chickpea/Israeli-Palestinian divide seems strange to you, allow me to provide a little historical perspective, courtesy of Yael Raviv‘s definitive essay from Gastronomica a few years ago:
Falafel’s origins have been traced to the Christian Copts of Egypt, who were not allowed to eat meat during certain holidays, especially Lent. Ta’amia [as favas are known in Egypt] thus served as a meat substitute. When the dish later spread to other regions of the Middle East, the fava beans were sometimes replaced with chickpeas; the Jewish population in Palestine —- the early halutzim, or pioneers —- adopted the local Arab version made with chickpeas. By the 1920s falafel had become a popular snack with the younger generation, and by the 1950s it was common throughout Israeli society. Ultimately, falafel became one of the icons of Israeli culture.