Saturday, February 5, 2011
The new McFalafel… it’s not what you think
The writer endures a grueling taste test to determine how well a McDonald's brand falafel stacks up to the classic corner-store Israeli restaurant variety.
When McDonald’s, the world’s favorite fast-food chain and my personal favorite maker of French fries, introduced their McFalafel in Israel recently, it went by relatively unnoticed (save for the plethora of billboards plastered across the city announcing its debut). I think it’s safe to say, however, that the general consensus was “why would anyone go to McDonald’s to eat a food that is traditionally Middle Eastern?”
“Ew. That is disgusting. That is not falafel,” a teenage girl said to her group of friends as they walked past the bus stop where an advertisement for the new McFalafel was prominently displayed.
I mentally agreed with the chattering teens, wondering who on earth would go to McDonald’s and order a falafel – the cheap, delicious chickpea-based meal-in-a-pita which has been referred to as Israel’s “national fast food”. Falafel stands dot the streets of Israeli cities in a way similar (but much less drastic) to the Starbucks Coffee shops now found on every corner in America. Like McDonald’s food, falafel is cheap, tasty, and easy to eat on the run.
Falafel is made from ground chickpeas, rolled into balls and fried and usually served in pita bread along with chopped vegetables and humus or tahini sauce. While it has been hailed as the fast food of Israel, there has been controversy in the past as neighboring Arab countries in the region lay claim to its origins.
Many tourists who visit Israel arrive in the country with the certain goals in mind: see the Western Wall, float in the Dead Sea, and eat falafel (and of course, hummus).
I had the pleasure of recently hosting a first-timer to the country, who insisted on stopping into different McDonald’s locations as we road-tripped our way from Eilat to Jerusalem.
“I think it tells you a lot about a country’s culture,” my friend explained as we stopped to peek at the menu at our third McDonald’s branch. I agreed, though the statement left us stumped as to why there was a Mexican-food menu at a McDonald’s in Prague that we had encountered while travelling together in college.
My tourist friend was disappointed by the sleek, modern menu at McDonald’s, which was lacking in Middle Eastern flair. This was, of course, shortly before the debut of the McFalafel. But to be honest, I don’t think I would have been considered a very good hostess if I had let my friend have her first taste of Middle Eastern falafel at a McDonald’s. Which left me debating the question of who exactly do the execs running McDonald’s Israel branch think is going to order it?
I decided to step up to the plate, ignoring the chemically engineered mouthful of yuck that the picture of a McFalafel conjured up. When ordering my McFalafel, I was predictably asked if I wanted French fries and a drink. Being what they call in Hebrew a “friar” or sucker, I obliged, reasoning with myself that the McFalafel would probably be inedible, so at least I would have the fries to console myself.
The McFalafel alone costs NIS 16.90, with fries and a drink, NIS 34. Wanting to make this taste test somewhat scientific, I purchased a falafel at one of my favorite stands nearby, and arrived a friend’s house with my hands full of chick pea-based goodies.
The McFalafel I had ordered was presented in a way that is best described as “pita friendly”, allowing you to tear the top part of the container off and enjoy your falafel without having to worry about getting the tahini in your lap. Instead of being served in the typical pita bread, the McFalafel comes in a lafa a thick fluffy round piece of bread that you stuff and wrap, like a burrito. The actual McFalafel falafel balls were more like patties, with a flat cylindrical shape as opposed to the typical round falafel ball.
My taste-test assistant first tried each make of falafel without its bread. The falafel from the neighborhood stand was just how I like it: crunchy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. Then we braced ourselves for McDonald’s falafel-patty. The tension mounted as my friend bit into it first and chewed thoughtfully.
“It tastes like falafel,” she said. I reached for the patty, hoping to discern what exactly that un-scientific statement of hers actually meant. The falafel-patty was, in fact, surprisingly not horrible. I would stop short of calling it delicious, but it was crunchy and pleasing and lacked that “fake” aftertaste that many people argue pervades fast food.
In a surprising turn of events, the falafel I had picked up from my favorite stand had been served to me without humus or tahina, making for one dry pita, which no one likes. The McFalafel, on the other hand, had veggies and a flavorful green tahina sauce, making for a more pleasurable eating experience. And when neither my friend nor I could take another bite, half a pita from the neighborhood stand was left on the plate, while the McFalafel was completely gone.
Having faced the McFalafel, I can say for certain that it is not as bad as one would imagine, and may in fact be pretty decent. But should tourists looking for a taste of original Middle Eastern flavor visit McDonald’s to satisfy their craving? I think the answer to that is obvious.
As for me, I’ll stick with the traditional experience of ordering falafel at a corner stand, with the typical side bar of pickled vegetables and condiments to personalize your pita. And if you’re looking to save a shekel, your neighborhood falafel stand will almost always beat McDonald’s, with a falafel typically costing no more than NIS 15.
But for all you fast-food fans out there looking to change up your typical order of a “Mac Royal” with fries, try the McFalafel, if for no other reason than to support the golden arches’ effort to Israelize their menu.