Karam’s $6 Falafel
Those golden rounds of parsley-spiked chickpeas known as falafel may be one of the world’s oldest dishes—in fact, according to Middle Eastern cookbook author Claudia Roden, the Christian Copts, direct descendents of the ancient Egyptians, claim the meal as theirs. But its prevalence in Portland is relatively new. In the 1980s, Tony Karam, a native of Lebanon and current owner of the downtown Lebanese restaurant Karam (316 SW Stark St, karamrestaurant.com), used to offer free samples of his homemade falafel to Portlanders at Long Island Pizza, where he worked, but the savory morsels often went untouched. “No one wanted to try it,” he says. Today, though, thanks to Portland’s maturing culinary scene, Karam makes hundreds of falafel a day just to satisfy the demand at his restaurant. Indeed, the snack has become a staple of many Portland street carts and cafés. But not all falafel is created equal. In fact, it can go very wrong, as evidenced by the myriad dry or mealy versions being served up in—sacre coeur!—store-bought pitas. However, Karam does it right, offering up a crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside falafel snuggled into a warm pita and smothered with perfectly seasoned tahini sauce—a delicious feast with ancient roots, but one that never gets old. —KC
Nothing kills a great falafel like a dry, store-bought pita, or one that was made two days ago. Karam makes his fresh every day, and ensures that they are warmed for the customer. Breaking the falafel balls inside the pita allows their flavors to mingle with the freshly cut lettuce (Karam prefers the crunch of iceberg), chopped tomato, and onion.
The best falafel is made from scratch, which means soaking dried chickpeas overnight in order to ensure a creamy consistency when they are puréed the next day. Egyptians originally used fava beans instead of chickpeas, and some restaurants, like Karam, mix a few in for crunchiness.
Every falafel should have a balance of freshly chopped garlic, onions, parsley, cilantro, salt, cumin, and other spices, and a bit of baking soda to make the mixture lighter. Karam prefers to dice the parsley and onions by hand instead of using a food processor, which produces liquid that can make the mixture too thin.
But the real art lies in the falafel chef’s technique: Karam wields his falafel scoop with care so as not to overwork the mixture, heaping it onto the scoop and then gently scraping off the excess instead of continually adding and compressing the mixture into a ball, which diminishes the falafel’s fluffiness.
The falafel must be fried in clean vegetable oil that’s heated to 325 degrees. Any hotter and the crust will be done before the inside has time to cook, resulting in a mushy falafel; any cooler and the falafel will likely fall to pieces in the oil.
The element that can make or break a falafel sandwich is the tahini. Made from sesame oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt, it’s entirely possible to turn this tasty accent into an overpowering mess by overdoing it with the garlic, salt, or lemon juice. Karam’s sauce strikes a perfect balance among each of these ingredients.