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Falafel: Ambassador of peace or cuisine from mideast?

Jerusalem's spiritual and historical importance in Christianity, Islam and Judaism has made it a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years. Perhaps the oldest tourist city in the world, it encapsulates national and local culture.

A tourist gains a sense of Israel's history, as well as an understanding of the complexity of its local past and present. It's a place enmeshed in supreme spiritual moments as well as inter-religious squabbling.

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Two years ago, I traveled to Jerusalem on a culinary pilgrimage. Before arriving in the city itself, I toured southern Israel. Eating at roadside shacks, Israeli fast-food joints and decrepit restaurants, I tried to understand Israeli cuisine.

After a week, I had learned little. "If this is the food of the Holy Land," I thought, "God must dine elsewhere!"

I became pessimistic, and expected more of the same in Jerusalem. Immediately after arriving in the city, I took a walk along Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem's famous pedestrian mall, and stopped at a small unassuming falafel stand. Little did I know I was about to experience a culinary revelation.

Before I explain any further, a word about falafel: falafel are deep fried spherical fritters of ground chickpeas flavored with garlic and coriander. A common dish in the Middle East, it varies slightly from country to country. In Egypt, for example, the fritters are made from ground fava beans (Hannibal Lecter would probably be a fan).

In the early twentieth century, Jewish immigrants to Palestine fell in love with falafel and, when the modern State of Israel was established, it became the national food.

Today, falafel are often served in a hollow flatbread bread called pita or wrapped in a round flatbread known as laffah. Typically, this bread is also stuffed with a host of other condiments and salads, including tehina (a sauce made from ground sesame seeds) and hummus (a thick puree of chickpeas and tehina).

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Falafel sandwiches are often lackluster, however, because many cooks prepare the fritters in advance and reheat them before being served. This process renders the fritters both greasy and dry. Thus, when I walked up to the falafel stand on Ben Yehuda Street, I was ready to be under-whelmed.

I filled my sandwich to the brim with condiments and, with some trepidation, took my first messy bite. Immediately, I was seized by an extraordinary feeling.

The falafel were crisp on the outside, soft and warm on the inside — an amazing contrast. They were as light as feathers and didn't have a spot of grease.

I was struck by the sandwich's differing tastes, textures and colors. Yet, the sweet, spicy, tangy and rich flavors were amazingly harmonious. It was the gastronomic equivalent of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

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Since I returned from Israel two years ago, I have tried to replicate this culinary revelation outside Jerusalem. I have found two establishments that serve very tasty (if not totally authentic) falafel in Princeton.

Olives Bakery and Delicatessen (22 Witherspoon Street), a pleasant take-out, has excellent breads, pastries and salads. In addition to these, Olives makes a fine falafel sandwich with fritters cooked to order — crispy on the outside and soft on the inside — for $3.25.

The servers at Olives are always pleasant and never fail to remind customers of their six-percent student discount. Additionally, Olives makes a terrific baklava, a nut and honey pastry common throughout the Middle East.

Zorba's Grill (183-D Nassau Street) serves a passable falafel sandwich for $4.20. The atmosphere at Zorba's is far less enticing than Olives and one always wonders how long the chocolate chip cookies have been sitting by the cash register (read: centuries). The falafel are dry but still tasty. Zesty sauces moisten the sandwich well.

Interestingly, both Olives and Zorba's serve their falafel in a thick, pliant flatbread, different from Israeli breads. However, this flatbread is a welcome enhancement of the traditional sandwich.

Unfortunately, neither Olives nor Zorba's renditions can stand up next to Ben Yehuda Street falafel. This probably has less to do with the sandwich itself and more to do with what it represents.

The falafel at Olives and Zorba's are both a means to an end: sustenance. The falafel in Jerusalem is more than the sum of its parts. It sustains and also enlightens.

That humble sandwich provides a surprising window on Jerusalem's past and present, and possibly its future too. The people of Jerusalem — Palestinian and Israeli — are often a little like the sandwich they know and love.

From what I've seen, they tend to project a tough and dispassionate exterior, and to see each other as hard and bitter to the core. They live in a city stuffed full of people of different faiths, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies. Yet, they also have much in common — food and humanity for starters.

Somehow, Israelis and Palestinians must realize their commonality and break down that outer shell to find the true warmth in each other. Peace can be as far away as the longest pilgrimage or as close as the nearest falafel stand. It all depends on how you see it.

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