A vegetarian buffet to celebrate Queen Esther [RECIPES]

What makes Purim so special? Maybe it’s the heroic story of Queen Esther. Whatever you decide, it is still one of the happiest of all Jewish holidays. Filled with accounts of bravery, it tells the story of Queen Esther and how she helped defeat the wicked minister Haman in ancient Persia. 

We plan on celebrating the holiday this year with an after-the-Purim-carnival buffet, inspired by the elaborate banquets served in biblical times. One long table can be set for all the guests, and each place setting will have a noisemaker to use during the retelling of the Purim story.

Buffets are especially appealing to children because they can select their own food. Creating a dairy meal is appropriate for Purim as a reminder that Queen Esther, in order to eat only kosher food in the king’s palace, followed a vegetarian diet that consisted primarily of vegetables, seeds, grains, nuts and beans.

Let guests start the evening by helping themselves to cups of vegetarian mushroom barley soup. It is even better prepared a day or two in advance to allow the flavors to blend. 

One of the typical foods served at a Purim carnival are pita roll-ups filled with tomatoes, onions, avocado, other vegetables and cheese. Don’t forget to include bowls of tabbouleh salad made with bulgur wheat, tomato, parsley and mint. 

Falafel — a spicy combination of bulgur wheat and garbanzo beans, fried until crisp and brown and served on skewers with a sauce of tahini (sesame paste) — is a perfect dish for your buffet table. Another family favorite is a noodle kugel filled with sautéed eggplant and squash, accompanied by a vegetable puree sauce.

Don’t forget dessert: Everyone is going to love hamantashen, rich with chocolate or caramel filling. Be sure to bake enough to share with family and friends for “shalach manot” (from “mishloach manot,” or “sending of portions”), the traditional custom of giving sweets during the holiday.

One other significant addition to a Purim celebration is wine, which plays an important part in the meal. It has been stated that one who does not drink wine does not observe the holiday. Enjoy!


2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced carrots
1 onion, diced
3/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/8 cup pearl barley
1 tablespoon dry sherry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Cook celery and carrots, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, 5 minutes. Add onion and cook until softened, 5 minutes more. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Add stock, soy sauce, barley and sherry. Reduce heat to low, cover partially, and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Add additional stock or water as needed. Add salt and pepper to taste. To serve, ladle into heated soup bowls.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.



1 (12-inch) round pita bread
2 cups torn romaine lettuce
2 thin slices tomato
3 thin slices red onion
1 thin slice Jack cheese
1 piece roasted sweet red pepper
1/4 avocado, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts

Split pita bread in half and place 1 round half on 18-by-12-inch sheet of parchment or wax paper. Arrange lettuce across center of pita half. Top with tomato and onion slices, cheese, roasted pepper and avocado. Sprinkle alfalfa sprouts on top. Roll up tightly, jellyroll fashion. Place rolled-up sandwich on edge of remaining pita half, seam-side down. Roll up tightly, jellyroll fashion, enclosing completely. 

Place sandwich, seam-side down, on an angle, on parchment paper. Then fold corner of parchment paper closest to you over sandwich. Fold two sides of parchment over and continue to roll up tightly, envelope fashion. Using a very sharp knife cut pita in half, through parchment, exposing filling. 

Makes 2 servings.


1 cup bulgur, preferably fine-grade
1/2 cup minced green onions
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
4 tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 heads romaine lettuce, small center leaves only
1 lemon, thinly sliced, for garnish

Soak bulgur in enough cold water to cover, until tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Drain well and squeeze as dry as possible in double layer of cheesecloth or clean kitchen towel.

Place bulgur in a large bowl. Add green onions, parsley, mint and tomatoes; toss well. In a small bowl, mix together lemon juice, oil, and salt and pepper to taste; add to bulgur mixture and toss gently. Pile salad on large platter and surround with romaine leaves to use for scooping. Garnish with lemon slices. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings. 


Tahini Sauce (recipe follows)
1/2 cup bulgur, preferably fine grade
1 1/2 cups torn chunks pita bread or white bread
2 cups canned garbanzo beans, drained
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

Prepare Tahini Sauce; refrigerate.

Soak bulgur in enough cold water to cover, for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside. Soak pita in enough cold water to cover until tender and moist, about 5 minutes. Drain pita, squeeze it dry, and set aside.

Put the garbanzos, lemon juice, garlic, cilantro, parsley, red pepper, cumin, salt and pepper in a food processor or blender. Process until smoothly pureed. Add soaked bulgur and pita, and pulse until thoroughly combined. Moisten your hands with cold water and shape the mixture into 1-inch balls. 

Fill a large heavy skillet with oil to a depth of  3 inches; heat oil to 375 F on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry the falafel balls in several batches, without overcrowding, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer falafel to paper towels to drain. Spear each falafel with a wooden skewer and serve hot with Tahini Sauce. 

Makes about 2 dozen.


3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tahini
1/2 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

Process garlic, tahini and lemon juice in food processor or blender. Add enough water to make thin sauce. Add cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. 

Makes about 2 cups.


Vegetable Filling (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (1-pound) package wide noodles
1/3 cup unsalted margarine
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare Vegetable Filling; set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add oil and noodles. Boil according to package directions, until tender. Drain in colander. Transfer noodles to large bowl. Add margarine, poppy seeds and eggs; mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Butter a 10-inch oven-proof glass tart pan. Pour half of noodle mixture into pan. Spoon about 2 cups Vegetable Filling on top, cover with remaining noodle mixture. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

While kugel is baking, puree remaining Vegetable Filling in food processor or blender. Just before serving, place in saucepan and heat a few minutes; serve with kugel.

Makes about 8 servings.


1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, sliced in strips
3 tomatoes, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 eggplant, peeled if desired, finely diced
2 zucchini, sliced

Heat olive oil in skillet, add onion and garlic; cook until tender. Add green pepper; sauté a few minutes. Add tomatoes, parsley and oregano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add eggplant and zucchini; simmer until tender-crisp, stirring occasionally. Cover and set aside until ready to use. 


Chocolate Filling (recipe follows)
Caramel-Pecan Filling (recipe follows)
3 cups flour
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 pound unsalted margarine
3 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg
1 egg white

Prepare Chocolate Filling and Caramel-Pecan Filling; set aside until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 350 F. 

In large bowl of electric mixer, combine flour, almonds, baking powder, salt and sugar. Blend in margarine until mixture resembles very fine crumbs.

In a small bowl, blend water and cocoa; beat in egg. Add to flour mixture, beating until completely blended and mixture begins to form a dough. Do not over-mix.

Transfer to floured board and knead into a ball. Chill for 30 minutes. 

Divide into 6 or 7 equal portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with palm of hand and roll out, 1/4-inch thick. With scalloped cookie cutter, cut into 3 1/2-inch rounds. Place 1 teaspoon of Chocolate Filling or Caramel-Pecan Filling in center of each round. Fold edges of dough toward center to form triangle, leaving a bit of filling visible in center. Pinch edges to seal.

Place on lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with egg white. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes or until firm. Transfer to rack to cool. 

Makes about 5 dozen. 


1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk, cream or coffee
1 cup toasted chopped walnuts

In a bowl, combine cocoa, sugar, milk and walnuts; blend thoroughly

Makes about 2 1/2 cups. 


3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
2 cups toasted chopped pecans
7 tablespoons unsalted margarine
1/2 cup milk or nondairy creamer
1/4 cup honey

In a heavy saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil, mixing with wooden spoon, until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add pecans, margarine and milk. Return to heat, stirring constantly, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in honey.

Transfer to ovenproof glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until set. 

Makes about 3 cups. 

Homemade falafel — A little taste of Israel

Bring a bite of Israel home with delicious falafel sandwiches made with amazing Israeli food products easily found in your local grocery store. These are perfect to pack for lunch, grab as a light snack or serve as a main course for dinner. B’tayavon!


Telma Falafel Mediterranean Cocktail Snack Mix
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Cooking oil (olive, corn or canola oil)

Israeli Salad:
2 tomatoes
1 sweet or yellow onion
1 large cucumber
1 lemon
Fresh parsley

Sandwich and Add-ons:
Telma Hummus Mediterranean Instant Dip Mix
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
Prince Tahina
Biton Yohai Harissa
Fresh pita bread

For falafel, combine contents of one bag of Telma falafel mix with 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons water in large bowl. Add fresh parsley to bowl and mix to combine. Let sit for 10 minutes.

In meantime, for salad, seed tomatoes and then coarsely chop tomatoes, onion and cucumber (no need to peel). Combine vegetables in second bowl. Squeeze juice of lemon into salad and stir. Add parsley if desired, and allow to sit at room temperature while you cook the falafel.

Shape falafel mixture into 12 1-inch balls. Pour oil into heavy skillet or saucepan to a depth of 1/2 inch (be careful if using olive oil, it has a higher smoking point and will splatter; do not use extra virgin olive oil for frying as the taste will deteriorate). Allow to heat. Drop a tiny piece of the mixture or a droplet of water into the oil to test. If it sizzles upon impact, the oil is ready.

Carefully add the balls to the oil. Allow to cook until side that is down becomes golden brown, and then flip over. Fry until second side is golden. Total approximate cooking time is 2 minutes. Remove falafel from pan and drain on paper towels.

Prepare hummus in separate bowl. Mix contents of bag with 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water. Garnish with paprika, parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.

If using tahina, mix purchased sauce with equal measure of water.

To assemble sandwich:

Cut pita in half to create an open pocket. Add cool ingredients as first layer of pocket (hot ingredients will cause the bread to open and the sandwich to leak). Layer hummus, Israeli salad and two falafel balls into each pita. Top with tahina and harissa to taste.

Makes 6 sandwiches.

UPDATE: Chef to try for falafel ball record at Santa Clarita fest

UPDATE: The falafel ball, weighing nearly 52.8 pounds, has been certified as the world’s largest.

The Santa Clarita Valley could become home to the world’s largest falafel ball on

May 15, when local chef Dawn Walker tries to craft and cook a deep-fried chickpea patty that will outweigh the 24-pound falafel ball that set the record a year ago in New York.

Part of the third annual Santa Clarita Valley Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, Walker’s attempt will be documented for the Guinness Book of World Records. If a test run held two weeks before the event is any indication, the ball could end up weighing as much as 50 pounds.

The organizers considered attempting to break other food-related records before settling on the falafel ball. “We thought about a matzah ball,” Sandi Hershenson, the event’s chairperson, said. “That was hundreds of pounds.” The world’s largest rugelach (440 pounds) was also out of reach, Hershenson said.

Temple Beth Ami, Congregation Beth Shalom and the local Chabad are hosting this year’s festival, which will include food vendors, musical performances and a kugel-baking competition. The event coincides with Big Sunday, and attendees will be able to take part in a number of mitzvah projects and community service opportunities.

The festival drew 1,500 people last year, and organizers anticipate an even larger number this year, particularly in light of the cancellation of this year’s Israel Independence Day Festival in Woodley Park.

Attendees will be invited to help mix the chickpeas for Walker’s massive falafel ball, but they won’t get to taste it. “If 2,000 people are all putting their hands in it, I don’t know who would want to eat it at that point,” Hershenson said. The ball will need to be deep fried and baked to ensure it is fully cooked throughout, a requirement of any Guinness competitor.

The event will be held at College of the Canyons and runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Details are available at scvjewishfoodfestival.com.

— Jonah Lowenfeld, Staff Writer

Flavors of Israel

My fascination with Israeli food started the first time I tasted a falafel laced with tahini at a little sidewalk cafe in Westwood, near UCLA. Inspired by this simple Israeli dish, I began developing a list of Middle Eastern recipes that grew with each trip to Israel.

When visiting the marketplace in Jerusalem, I love watching the pita bakers working at cavernous wood-fired ovens. Rounds of dough are flattened by hand, then tossed against the inside walls of the ovens, where they puff up as they bake.

When I have time, I make my own pita bread, which I smother with garlic-herb butter and bake until crisp. You can also cut pita into triangles and serve for dipping with baked eggplant or hummus.

I enjoy serving a buffet-style Israeli lunch or dinner for friends, and because of the variety of dishes available, it is the perfect food for a family get-together, bar or bat mitzvah, or wedding celebration.

Eggplant, a favorite on the buffet table, is a versatile vegetable used in many recipes throughout the Middle East. My favorite recipe using this beautiful, dark purple vegetable is to blend its delicate yet pungent flavor with tahini, garlic, olive oil and salt for a delicious dip, baba ganoush.

Another of my favorites to serve is tabouleh, a traditional Middle Eastern salad, a combination of cracked bulgur wheat, green onions, chopped parsley, mint and lots of tomatoes. I often improvise, adding sliced cucumber and chopped red bell pepper, and using cilantro instead of parsley.

Serve this Israeli menu indoors or out, depending on the season and the amount of space you have. Most of the food can be prepared in advance, and the salads will keep well in the refrigerator for a day or two, even improving in flavor.

Set up a sweet table, arrange baskets of fresh fruit and bowls of nuts and dried fruit, and include baklava, made with layers of filo dough and chopped walnuts. After baking, pour or drizzle a warm honey syrup over the baklava. Let cool before serving.

Also, many people love halvah, a sweet confection often made from sesame seeds, which can be made even more delicious by dipping it in melted semisweet chocolate. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.


Pita garlic toast. Photos by Dan Kacvinski.

1/2 cup (1/4 pound) unsalted butter or nondairy margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons minced fresh chives, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 pita rounds, split in half

In a food processor, blend together butter, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and chives. Add salt and pepper to taste. (If not using the spread immediately, mold it into a cube, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate or freeze; let it come to room temperature before continuing with your recipe.)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Spread the inside surfaces of the split pita rounds with the butter mixture. Cut each round into halves or quarters. Arrange the pitas in one layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. You can also place the pieces under a broiler and broil until crisp. Watch carefully to avoid burning.

Transfer to serving plate and serve immediately.

Makes 12 servings.

1 large eggplant
1 medium onion, finely chopped, juice squeezed out and discarded
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons water
Dash cayenne pepper
Parsley sprigs for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 F.

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place it cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake until its skin is charred and the inside is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let the eggplant cool; peel it and chop finely. Place it in a mixing bowl, add the onion and parsley, and blend well.

In a separate bowl, stir together the tahini, 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, garlic and water until well blended. Stir the tahini mixture into the eggplant mixture. Add salt to taste and cayenne pepper. Stir in additional lemon juice to taste. Garnish with parsley.

Makes about 2 1/2 to 3 cups.



1 cup fine cracked wheat (bulgur)
1/2 cup minced green onions
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
4 medium tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
2 heads romaine lettuce, small center leaves only
1 lemon, thinly sliced for garnish

Soak the cracked wheat in enough cold water to cover until tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Drain it well and squeeze it as dry as possible by hand or in a kitchen towel or a double layer of cheesecloth.

Place the bulgur in a large bowl. Add the green onions, parsley, mint and tomatoes; toss well. Stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let the mixture stand for about 30 minutes, to allow the flavors to blend. Stir in the oil.

Pile the mixture on a large platter and surround it with the romaine leaves to use for scooping. Garnish with lemon slices.

Makes 8 servings.



1/2 cup fine cracked wheat (bulgur)
1 1/2 to 2 pita bread rounds or white bread slices, torn into chunks (makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans, drained
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Soak bulgur in enough cold water to cover for l5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Soak the bread chunks in enough cold water to cover, until soft and moist, about 5 minutes. Drain the bread, squeeze it dry, and set aside.

In a food processor or blender, put the garbanzos, lemon juice, garlic, cilantro, parsley, red pepper, cumin, salt and pepper. Process until smoothly pureed. Add the bulgur and bread and pulse until thoroughly combined. Moisten your hands with cold water. Shape the mixture into 1-inch balls.

Fill a large, heavy skillet with 3 inches of oil and heat to 375 F on a deep-frying thermometer. Fry the falafel in several batches, without overcrowding, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per batch. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve hot.

Makes about 36 balls, 8 to 10 servings.

Clarified Butter (recipe follows)
1/2 cup oil
1 package (1 pound) filo pastry dough
4 cups very finely chopped walnuts
Sugar and Honey Syrup (recipe follows)

Brush the bottom and sides of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with the Clarified Butter. Trim the filo sheets to 12 by 9 inches. Place l sheet of filo on the bottom of the dish. Brush its entire surface lightly with clarified butter. Lay the second sheet on top and butter it lightly. Sprinkle it evenly with about 3 tablespoons of walnuts.

Repeat the procedure, using 2 sheets of buttered filo topped with 3 tablespoons of walnuts, until you’ve used all of the nuts and all but 2 sheets of filo. Place the 2 remaining sheets on top, brushing both with butter.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

With a small, sharp knife, score the top of the baklava lengthwise with parallel lines, 2 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep. Then score diagonally across them with parallel lines 2 inches apart to form diamond shapes.

Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 F and bake 45 minutes longer, or until the top is crisp and golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour the Sugar and Honey Syrup evenly over it. Let it cool to room temperature, then cut along the scoring lines into individual pieces.

Makes about 24 pieces.

1 pound unsalted butter

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat and cool about 30 minutes. Skim off the foam. Slowly pour the clear liquid into a clean container, stopping before the whey (the milky-white sediment) escapes. Discard the whey. The butter will shrink about 25 percent in volume, so be sure you have enough for your recipe. Or, if time permits, place the melted butter in the freezer for a few minutes; the butter will harden and the whey will remain liquid and can be poured off.

Makes about 2 cups.

1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey

In a heavy saucepan, over medium heat, stir together the sugar, water and lemon juice, cooking until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, without stirring, and continue boiling until the syrup reaches 220 F on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups. 

Family-run Falafel Grill serves authentic Israeli fare

The Agoura Meadows Shopping Center, an overgrown strip mall located in a particularly pastoral nook of the Conejo Valley, contains a surprisingly diverse array of international restaurants: Hong Kong Express, Italia Deli & Bakery and Sushi Ozekii flank an enormous Vons. Just around the corner are Alamo Mexican Grill and its unlikely neighbor, Falafel Grill, a Glatt kosher Israeli restaurant. Falafel Grill is the only establishment that provides outdoor seating; a midweek lunch finds a number of lone middle-aged men enjoying a shwarma plate and taking in the sun before heading back to the office to get down to business.

The interior is clean and spare, with mirrored walls and glass-covered, wood-grain-paneled tables. You order at the counter and wait for your name to be called; sometimes, if it’s not too busy, a server will duck out from behind the counter to deliver your dish. The menu is familiar Israeli fare: shwarma and kebabs available as pita sandwiches or on combo plates, joined by a variety of salads and vegetable dips. The counter is crammed full of a colorful array of imported Israeli treats and tzedakah boxes for various causes, the nearby fridge stocked with Prigat juice and a nonalcoholic malt beer as well as more common American beverages. Don’t be fooled by the sleek-looking AVTR can: Turns out it’s no Israeli innovation, just a Coke Zero dressed up to sell James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Upon closer inspection, Falafel Grill distinguishes itself from its pita stand peers as a more seriously religious institution: If the gigantic signs on the door didn’t make it clear, there is also a sink for ritual hand-washing tucked into a corner next to the condiments. A high shelf stocks siddurim, particularly appropriate to the season, and the posters on the walls are all images of Jerusalem, the Western Wall and black-clad Chasidic rebbes.

Husband-and-wife co-owners Amos and Vivian Parnes are affiliated with the local Chabad, which also provides their kosher certification. This is a matter of no small importance, as Falafel Grill is not just kosher but Glatt kosher. Glatt, which translates to “smooth,” is a frequently misunderstood term; people tend to regard as superkosher or a guarantee that meat is “high quality” in some general sense. In fact, it refers to a specific scriptural mandate that the lungs of an animal be free of blemishes or growths of any kind. While this has the effect of keeping ill animals out of the food system, its original intention was rather different: The prohibition against eating animals that are internally diseased stems from a law prohibiting the consumption of animals that have been savaged by another creature.

For all of its religious conviction, Falafel Grill is at heart a low-key place, busiest at lunch with locals looking to talk business over a hearty meal and some imported treats. A television plays Fox News at medium-low volume and no one listens; as the afternoon wears on, a couple of parties linger over spreadsheets and portfolios or Hebrew newspapers. The Parneses still work the counter; on a recent afternoon, Vivian handled the lunch rush with a pleasant if brusque efficiency before ducking out for a cigarette and a long talk with a customer taking advantage of the early spring sun. 

Although Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants than most American cities, they are not nearly as numerous as their nonkosher counterparts, especially in communities as far-flung as Agoura. So there is a particularly familial feel at Falafel Grill, an almost insular focus on the traditions and culture of a specific subset of the Jewish community. It is comfortably foreign, the menu translating whatever might seem obscure.

The current special is a ground-chicken patty served in a pita sandwich, an excellent — and delicious — amalgamation of the American and Israeli. No matter what the dish, the food is consistently simple and tasty, the bright flavors of Israeli salad against tender, salty meat, with a little bit of creamy tahini, smoky baba ghanoush and a spicy tomato dip as sides. Manamit’s thin chocolate-covered wafers make an excellent dessert.

You might begin to imagine at this point that you have found your way to Israel, or at least someplace other than suburban Los Angeles. Driving away into the Ventura Freeway’s afternoon traffic is a rude awakening — luckily, Falafel Grill remains open and unchanging, always ready to welcome us back for more.

The Great Falafel Question

The last time you bit into a falafel sandwich you were probably thinking about nothing more than the warm spice and crunch of the chickpea fritters and the way they played against the soft bread, crisp vegetables and nutty tahini sauce.

Unless you’re Palestinian, in which case you may have had weightier culinary issues on your mind.

Many Palestinians believe that Israelis have stolen falafel, a traditional Arab food, and passed it off as what postcards at tourist kiosks all over Israel call "Israel’s National Snack."

"We always sort of look at each other and roll our eyeballs when we pass a restaurant that says ‘Israeli falafel,’" said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian American and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago.

Some do more than roll eyeballs. Aziz Shihab, a Palestinian American and the author of the cookbook, "A Taste of Palestine," once picked an argument with the owners of an Israeli restaurant in Dallas that served falafel. "This is my mother’s food," he said. "This is my grandfather’s food. What do you mean you’re serving it as your food?"

It’s nice to think that sharing a cherished food brings enemies together, easing tension and misunderstanding. But the world’s rawest conflicts can include disagreements over common foodstuffs. Irish Catholics and Protestants have lightly bickered over whiskey. Turks and Greeks have feuded over coffee. And Jews and Arabs argue about falafel in a way that reflects the wider conflict, touching on debates over territory and history. "Food always migrates according to immigration and commerce," said Yael Raviv, an Israeli student at New York University who wrote her doctorate on Israeli nationalism and cuisine. "But because of the political situation, falafel has taken on enormous significance."

"Every Israeli tourist brochure has a shot of falafel," Raviv continued. "And every Israeli cookbook has a falafel recipe."

Jewish and Israeli attitudes toward the falafel debate range from defiance to ambivalence to outright shame — just as they do toward the conflict at large. Some Jews point out that no single group can own a method for frying a mush of legumes; they say that falafel is generically Middle Eastern, having originated in Egypt and found its way as far as Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

"Have we stolen pasta from the Italians?" asked Geoffrey Weill, who does public relations for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. "What kind of nonsense is that?"

Hagay Nagar, the Israeli co-owner of Hoomoos Asli in New York, says that falafel is now "an international food, like a hamburger." (Nevertheless, his restaurant has an Arabic name: "Asli," a word adopted by Israeli slang, means "original" in Arabic.)

Some argue that there is some historical precedent. Joan Nathan, author of "The Foods of Israel Today," said: "Falafel is a biblical food. The ingredients are as old as you’re going to get. These are the foods of the land, and the land goes back to the Bible. There have been Jews and Arabs in the Middle East forever, and the idea that Jews stole it doesn’t hold any water."

Claudia Roden, born in Egypt and the author of "The Book of Jewish Food," confirmed that while falafel was never specifically a Jewish dish, it was certainly eaten by Jews in Egypt and Syria.

Other Jews and Israelis are less comfortable with the Israelization of falafel. Take Orna Agmon, a co-owner of the Falafel Queens, a set of upscale falafel restaurants in Israel. Agmon and her business partner, Ella Shein, were so ambivalent about the issue, she said, that "it took us many years to actually have the courage to open a falafel restaurant — we were afraid this act would be misunderstood."

Agmon and Shein polished their falafel-making skills under the tutelage of Palestinian women, she said, "who make the best falafel you can imagine," and who volunteered their knowledge without asking for compensation. "It was three years ago; it was a different period," Agmon said, referring to the relative calm that preceded the current violence. "It is still something that’s hard for us to think about now."

As surprising as it may sound, given the bloodiness and acrimony of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zionism has always been perfumed by a whiff of romance with Arab culture. The Eastern European Jews who flocked to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries rejected their Continental pasts in favor of a return to their ancient roots. "The Jewish settlers were looking for new ways to connect with their biblical pasts," Raviv said, "and Arabs were the perfect role models."

Some Jewish settlers in Palestine referred to themselves as "Hebrew Bedouins" and donned kaffiyehs (Arab headdresses). "Politically, the Zionists ignored the Arabs, but culturally, they romanticized and tried to imitate them," said Yael Zerubavel, a scholar of Israeli culture at Rutgers. This imitation didn’t seem like theft, Zerubavel said, "but localization, a process of putting roots in soil."

The newly arrived Jews needed a cuisine to suit their new identities and surroundings. "Their native food was inappropriate for the weather and the produce," Roden said. Not surprisingly, they were enchanted by the smoky eggplant dips, rustic breads and aromatic spice mixtures of Palestinian cuisine. As Najwa al-Qattan, a Palestinian American and a professor of Middle Eastern history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, put it, "If you were given the choice between falafel and gefilte fish, which would you choose?"

These Zionists, by and large socialists, loved humble street foods like falafel, Roden said. They showed little interest in the primary jewels of Palestinian cuisine, like musakhan, a sumptuous ovenful of chicken, onions, sumac and pine nuts layered with fresh bread. Still, it wasn’t until hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israel in the 1950s that falafel truly became an Israeli emblem.

"And We Have Falafel," a popular Israeli song written in 1958, included such lyrics as: "It used to be when a Jew came to Israel he kissed the ground and gave thanks/Now as soon as he gets off the plane he has a falafel." It also has the line "only we have falafel," adding "because this is the national food of Israel."

In particular, Jews from Yemen got into the falafel business, opening up concession stands. These immigrants, Zerubavel said, "made it possible to incorporate elements like falafel without referring to them as Palestinian." Raviv of New York University added that falafel’s lack of history as a specifically Jewish food speeded its adoption in the Jewish state, whose diverse residents could unite around a local dish that would be, she said, "valid to everyone."

Agmon compared falafel’s history to that of the sabra, the local prickly fruit that Palestinians ate for centuries before Israelis started using the word as a nickname for a native-born Israeli. Similarly, Ammiel Alcalay, a Jewish professor of Middle Eastern culture at Queens College, believes that "it’s total appropriation, and that it’s linked to very concrete things like land and sustenance." Alcalay said that Israelis have claimed falafel in the same way that they have Jaffa oranges and the spice mixture zaatar. (Zaatar usually consists of some combination of wild oregano, thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.)

But with time, Israelis have become quicker to acknowledge falafel’s provenance. Throughout the mid-1990s, during the shaky peace, Israeli tourists flocked to Jordan, and then to Palestinian villages inside Israel. Dan Almagor, who wrote the lyrics to "And We Have Falafel," said he would write the same song today — but with a line about the dish’s Arab origins.

And the falafel itself keeps changing. The original Egyptian dish was made with fava beans; as falafel moved northward, cooks substituted chickpeas. Until recently, Israel’s most notable contribution to its evolution has been to cram novel accompaniments, from shredded beets to French fries, into falafel sandwiches.

But the Falafel Queens have developed two new varieties: red falafel (flavored with jalapeños and served with roasted peppers, tomatoes and spicy yogurt sauce) and orange falafel (made with sweet potatoes and accompanied by cabbage, honey and ginger tahini). "Israelis love to think that falafel is their own," Agmon said. "But it’s something we adopted. For me, falafel is an Arab food with a long history and amazing versatility, to which we tried to contribute a new variation."

And perhaps Palestinians will grow more tolerant of Israeli enthusiasm for falafel. Shihab, who once quibbled with Jewish restaurateurs over it, claimed that his views have softened. "It’s a regional food, not a people food," he said. "The more I think and the more I pray for peace, the more I think it’s a silly argument."


Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus 24 hours for refrigerating chickpeas

11¼ cups dried chickpeas
1¼ cup bulgur wheat
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 scallions, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
11¼ teaspoons salt
1¼ teaspoon baking soda
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for deep frying.

1. Place chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
2. Rinse bulgur in a fine-meshed sieve and transfer to a bowl. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes.
3. Drain chickpeas. In a food processor, combine chickpeas, bulgur, garlic, scallions and parsley. Add coriander, cumin, cayenne, lemon juice, salt and baking soda. Season with black pepper to taste. Process until ground to a coarse paste-like consistency. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.
4. With moistened hands, shape rounded tablespoons of the mixture into meatball-size balls. Heat oil for deep frying to 375 F, or until a cube of bread turns golden in one minute. Deep-fry six or seven falafel at a time, turning to brown evenly, about five minutes. (To check if falafel is cooked, cut one in half. The color should be even through to the middle. If not even, increase cooking time by one minute.) Drain on paper towels.

Yield: About 30 fritters.