Big bowls of chickpeas soaking. Every bowl and pot filled with them. Everywhere. And freezers full of trays and trays of falafel balls.
Ask me to name a childhood memory, and that will be one of them.
Let’s rewind a bit. Thirty years ago, my Israeli father and Colombian mother got married. With their civil wedding falling around Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, and a Jewish wedding planned for almost two months later in Colombia, they decided to throw a falafel party for their friends to celebrate their nuptials in the US and the Jewish state’s birthday.
That intimate gathering was the beginning of an almost-annual—we’ve missed a few years—falafel party tradition that grew from my parents’ small city apartment to our suburban house and backyard and was even celebrated in Brazil while we were living there briefly.
During peak party years, prep would begin about ten days before with excursions to the local Jewish and Lebanese markets for chickpeas (pounds and pounds and pounds and pounds of chickpeas), tahini, spices and Israeli pickles and olives. We would round them out with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables from farm stands and the supermarket.
And then the chickpeas would soak. In bowls covering every counter surface in the house.
The menu varied each year—some years there were pasta salads and potato salads, others chicken kabobs. For a few years we hunted down real, thick, chewy Israeli pitas, instead of the sad American ones that can’t withstand a slice of deli turkey, let alone a mountain of falafel, tahini and salatim (salads).
But every year there were my dad’s famous falafel, hummus and z’hoog (also spelled s’hug) hot sauce.
I have vivid memories of coming downstairs on a Saturday morning, scarfing down breakfast and getting to work mixing or rolling balls, still in my pajamas. My brother and I would load up the upstairs freezer, the downstairs freezer and sometimes the neighbors’ freezer with trays of falafel balls, waiting to take a swim in oil to become perfect, hot, crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, flavorful orbs.
When I was in middle school, the parties ballooned to over 120 people—friends, friends of friends, neighbors, you name it. I don’t even remember how all those people got there, but you can bet it wasn’t through a Facebook invite. We’ve scaled them down a lot since then.
Putting aside the fact that my parents served falafel at their first wedding celebration and on almost every anniversary since then (for real romance, forget chocolate), falafel is a labor of love. If the oil isn’t hot enough, the balls will soak it all up and turn into greasy hockey pucks. If you don’t roll them tightly enough, they’ll fall apart in the oil, making a burnt, crumbly mess. And don’t even think about preparing them in advance and reheating them.
When I think about it, the fact that my dad is willing to spend an entire party standing over pots of hot oil, not to mention days of soaking, grinding, seasoning and rolling chickpeas into falafel magic, really says a lot about his love for my mom (who does no trivial amount of cooking, cleaning, shopping, serving and hosting for the party, by the way), his native country—or maybe just falafel.
I’m missing this year’s party, so happy anniversary, Mom and Dad—have a ball!