In what seems a world away, a century ago, I remember the first tentative forays into foods that were unusual, foreign, and exotic to me. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were a lot of weekends after I graduated from high school when I would take the train into New York City with a friend or two to see bands play at the Ritz or visit penpals (turned friends) who lived on Long Island. I loved walking through Greenwich Village, down Canal Street, record shopping, vintage shopping, just hanging out and taking everything in.
The first time I had Indian food was in New York City. My girlfriend at the time, our friend from Long Island, and myself found ourselves hungry after a serious day of shopping and walking around. Somehow we decided on Indian and thanks to Sue's love of roses we picked The Rose of India. Yes...for the name and maybe an agreeable cursory glance at the menu posted near the door. This place was truly awesome once we walked inside and let our eyes adjust to the serious change of lighting from outside to in. It was a long and narrow space with a center aisle and tables that hugged the walls on either side. Strands of Christmas lights (there must have been a few dozen) reached from the entryway to the kitchen, criss-crossing across the ceiling and winding their way up and down the wall. Even more amazing was the fact that it seemed as though every square inch of exposed wall was covered in artificial flowers. Silk, plastic, single blooms, garlands, bouquets, leaves, petals...all somehow attached or glued, making the dining room feel like a very dimly lit, strange 'garden' space. Sue could not have chosen a better place. We had a feast that evening, dish after dish after dish...curries, fritters, rice, fruits, vegetables, meats. To this day, I think fondly of the banana fritters we had for dessert and the fact that our whole bill was just $22! Even in the late 80's that was a serious score.
Of course, I had friends that lived in Philadelphia around this time too. There was lot of time spent on the campus of Temple University, on South Street, and in Old City...hanging out in dorm rooms, searching through the bins of Thrid St. Jazz, or dancing nights away at Revival. But there was also a little spot, if my memory serves me right, on Fourth Street, just off of South, called Tuly's Middle Eastern restaurant. Another restaurant in a small space, but bright and white. Maybe 8 or 10 wooden tables and chairs populated the space as you walked in the entrance, past the small take-out counter. More times than not, I wound up here with my friend, Amy, and we regularly took the table against the back wall. It was a great vantage spot to watch the goings on or to lean up against the wall as we ate, smoked, and talked for hours. We'd start every visit here with a plate of feta and Kalamata olives, drizzled with olive oil, and generously sprinkled with oregano. My choices were usually lamb or falafel. Falafel...who knew that chick peas could be that good. Up until then, they were something that I would pick out of any salad I found them in, thinking their large, bumpy appearance was truly unappetizing. I loved the crunch of each deep fried falafel ball, giving way to a chewy interior, mixing with the tang of the yogurt sauce.
Over twenty plus years later, I finally took it upon myself to even try making Indian food. But I did. And it was really good. Coming close to a year and a half later, I made falafel. Now this isn't the first time I made it...but it is the first time where it didn't come from a boxed mix. I know. For some reason, I thought it would be one of those things that would be difficult. Silly me. I also don't do a lot of deep frying at home. You know how the scent of frying oil just tends to linger in the air for a day or two? Yeah...that. It was worth it though.
From a recipe on Epicurious
1 15 oz can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup onions, chopped
2 tbsp cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp baking powder
6 tbsp flour
oil for frying
Yogurt Sauce with Celery
1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup celery, finely minced
1 tbsp olive oil
Add all the falafel ingredients, except the baking powder and flour, to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until ingredients come together, but are not pureed. Add baking powder and flour, again pulsing to bring ingredients together. The mix should still feel a little chunky, but not too sticky. Refrigerate for a couple of hours to overnight.
For the yogurt sauce, mix the yogurt with the celery and olive oil until well blended. Sprinkle generously with sumac and refrigerate to let flavours mingle.
To fry the falafel, form into small walnut size balls or patties. Bring oil to 375 degrees in a large saucepan. Only fry 3 or 4 at a time to keep oil temperature from dropping. Fry until golden brown (about 2 minutes each side), flipping to fry evenly. Remove from oil with slotted spoon and allow to drain on paper towel lined plate.
You can serve the falafel in a pita topped with the yogurt sauce or do what I did and top a bed of romaine with falafel and yogurt sauce.