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Food

2000 Falafel Balls and Counting, A Mission To Understand the Falafel

For Ari A. Cohen, Falafelism is not only the title of his new documentary film, but also a philosophy, a way of looking at life.

The film, which aired last month on Canadian television, opens with Cohen in falafel gumshoe mode, wearing cool, dark shades, sitting behind the wheel of his car. “Here I go again, searching for that tasty falafel. It’s out there and I’m real hungry. I’m on a mission to find the best falafel,” he says.

Two years ago, the filmmaker set out to trace the history and follow the proliferation of the modest deep-fried chickpea falafel ball around the world. Cohen and his film crew spent four months on the falafel trail, traveling eastward from his hometown of Montreal to Israel and the Palestinian Territories – and then back, with stops along the way in Paris, London, New York and Toronto.

“I have to go to the source. I can’t decide on the best falafel until I eat my way through the Middle East,” he says in all earnestness, as we see him at the Montreal airport departing for Tel Aviv.

On his travels, Cohen met and interviewed countless falafel chefs and vendors, Middle Eastern restaurant proprietors, culinary experts, historians, diplomats, and – of course – falafel aficionados like himself.

Falafelism, as it deals with countries and people, cannot escape the political, but at its core, it is a film about a love of food. Viewers are drawn in by the affable and trilingual, Moroccan-born Cohen, as he kibitzes in English, French and Hebrew with falafel makers in both the food’s geographic cradle and its Diaspora.

All the while, he downs fried chickpea ball after fried chickpea ball. The doughy faced, pudgy filmmaker estimates that he ate 2000 falafel balls over the course of filming, averaging out to 20-30 individual balls and 3 or 4 full sandwiches per day. At first it was completely enjoyable, but he admits that toward the end it was starting to wreak its havoc.

Where did Cohen eat the best falafel? Here are his recommendations:

1) Freiha Falafel, Montreal – Falafel is all they do – falafel and nothing else. It’s a generations-old family business that originated in Lebanon.

2) As du Falafel, Paris – They serve what Cohen calls “salad bar falafel,” and “It’s hard to resist a sandwich that packs a punch,” he says.

3) Alan’s Falafel, Manhattan – It’s a cart a block away from Ground Zero. The large, $3.00 falafel sandwiches are “lovely and cheap,” according to Cohen.

4) Michel Falafel, Haifa – It’s a family business with a long heritage, known for making its falafels a bit spicy.

Cohen is planning to turn the 45-minute film, into a longer feature-length production to be screened at film festivals and special events. Filmgoers should forget about the popcorn and candy – it’s safe to assume that falafel will be served.

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