“Poor man’s kebab” is Gaza’s most treasured food

Two men stand at table making falafel sandwiches in middle of produce shop

Every morning after I open my store, I buy falafel and hummus for breakfast. It’s the most popular meal in our market because of its reasonable price and high nutritional value,” said Arafat Ashour, 44, the owner of a produce stand at al-Zawya market, one of the oldest markets in Gaza. “I eat it with my friend who works with me. Sometimes customers join us.”

Its ingredients may be humble, but falafel enjoys a high status in Gaza.

The basic recipe calls for chickpeas, parsley and onions to be coarsely ground in a food processor before garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, coriander and paprika are added. The paste is rested for a couple of hours and then baking soda is mixed in. The falafel paste is formed into patties and fried.

Falafel is the most popular dish and falafel restaurants are ubiquitous across besieged Gaza.

Delicious, cheap and rich in protein, falafel is known as “the poor man’s kebab” in the Strip.

Text by Mousa Tawfiq, a journalist based in Gaza and photos by Mohammed Asad, a photojournalist based in Gaza.

Zahran restaurant, with six branches, is the most popular falafel joint in Gaza. They serve falafel, hummus and ful mudammas — a hearty dish made with fava beans.

“I’ve been working at Zahran since 2003,” said Muhammad al-Jabali, 32. “Our restaurant is always crowded. Everyone buys falafel for breakfast and dinner.”

In 2012, the Gaza municipality built a new corniche along the city’s coast, attracting residents throughout the year. Dozens of young men have opened small falafel stands along the beach.

Ahmad Abu Hasira, 35, recently opened his small booth.

“I work summer and winter. My booth wasn’t cheap, it cost me $600. I equipped it with extra parts to be used when it rains. I look forward to summer, because I sell hundreds of falafel sandwiches to holiday-makers each day.”

Aerial view of three men working at falafel frying station

At al-Sousi restaurant, located on Omar al-Mukhtar street, Gaza City’s most bustling, the falafel paste is fed into a machine which forms the patty and drops it into the deep fryer.

“It cost us $2,000. It’s cleaner, faster and gives us perfect, reliable falafel,” Imad al-Sousi, 32, said.

Five al-Sousi brothers work in the small restaurant which was opened by their father 25 years ago. They recently added a new branch in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City.

Some falafel restaurants have introduced new styles of sandwiches using different types of bread. Said al-Gharabli, 32, uses Iraqi bread to make his “perfect sandwich.”

“I put falafel, hummus, salad and french fries. It’s rich and delicious, especially when the bread is hot,” he said. “At first, people thought that my sandwich had too many ingredients. But they liked it once they tried it.”

Man holds up grill press holding several falafel sandwiches

Ahmad Totah, 28, makes falafel sandwiches with Syrian-style bread and “secret sauces.” He uses a grill to toast the bread.

“The Syrian bread is larger and lighter. I put falafel and french fries [in the bread] before adding my two secret sauces. My sandwiches have a special flavor and people like it. I’m very happy that I put my own touch on a traditional dish that hundreds of people make.”

Falafel is the main breakfast at schools run by UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, and those run by the government, where a falafel sandwich usually costs a shekel — less than a quarter.

Abdallah Hamada, 9, is a student at an UNRWA school. He prefers falafel over the cheese sandwiches that his mother makes for him.

“I buy falafel sandwiches with my classmates. Sometimes I ask the seller to put some hummus in the sandwich. Each day, my mother gives me two shekels. I buy a falafel sandwich and a bottle of juice.”

“I’ve been eating falafel since I was in first grade,” said Salah al-Amassi, 19, who studies information technology at the Islamic University of Gaza. “It’s very normal to see students entering the university cafeteria in groups just to eat falafel. It’s more than a tradition in our university life. I have an exam today. Nothing is better than a falafel sandwich for breakfast.”

For Samira Abu Daqqa, 19, who studies media and mass communication at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, falafel is part of Palestinian heritage and “won’t be stolen.”

“I know about the Israeli attempts to claim that falafel is an Israeli dish. It’s ridiculous. I’ve been eating falafel since kindergarten and my mother makes it at home.”

Every Thursday, the end of the school week, Sawsan Ali, 47, waits for her grandchildren to visit. She makes them falafel for dinner. “They like it. It’s a delicious and healthy meal. I make the falafel paste in the morning and wait until my grandchildren arrive in the evening. Then, I cook it for them,” she said.

Elderly man sits on chair next to table holding small dishes of food in shop filled with wood

For Muhammad Habboush, 66, who sells firewood for a living at his small shop in the Firas Market in Gaza City, falafel is more than an ordinary meal.

“When I was young, before 2000 [when Israel restricted movement from Gaza], I used to go to the woods inside the occupied territories [present-day Israel] to find firewood. Falafel sandwiches were my lunch during those long days. Now, I’m old. I spend winter at my small shop eating falafel with my grandsons while telling them the stories of our lands.”