Falafel You Say

By Michael J. Cain

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest provided few opportunities to experience international foods. At home we ate pot roast and chicken and rarely went out to a restaurant. I’d eaten plenty of spaghetti as a kid, but that didn’t mean I had eaten Italian food. Mexican food had never been served in my home, nor had German, Greek or Middle Eastern dishes. Once I left home and began making food choices on my own, I was amazed at the variety of options.

In my thirties I thought I was pretty savvy about food and had even become a respectable cook, delighting and sometimes frightening my two sons with a variety of dishes I’d discovered while traveling the country for my job. Around that time I was regaling several colleagues with stories of my cooking skills when one of them asked about my experience with Middle Eastern food. I admitted my palate had never reached further east than Greece, so he immediately insisted we have lunch that day at a nearby place he knew. It would be generous to call it a restaurant. The menu was very limited, but what David wanted to introduce me to was falafel. Falafel? What the heck was that?

He just assured me I would enjoy it. David is Lebanese and explained that falafel was as ubiquitous in his home country as hot dogs are in the States. As a dedicated carnivore, I was skeptical about a food item that contained no meat, and included vegetables and spices I could not have imagined being served together, and some I’d never experienced before. So, there we were, in a small shop, a cross between a convenience store and a fast food joint. David ordered, and when our food was ready, he explained about the several yogurt-based sauces available.

The falafel was amazing, but my favorite aspect of the meal was that he and I used the occasion to explore differences in our cultures through a shared love of food. That day food became important to me as a catalyst for discussing the diverse cultures around the planet. Political issues, especially when they cross international boundaries, often have complicated elements that aren’t obvious to casual observers. With food as common ground, I have been able to explore many fascinating topics in open and respectful conversations.

Michael Cain is an author, a PTSD coach at Ft. Bragg, NC, and a longtime food lover who recreates favorite dishes from restaurants he has visited during his extensive travels. He will periodically share his favorite food moments with NooshTube.