A couple of yuppie falafel places have been cropping up in Dubai over the last two years, selling falafels with a personality not dissimilar to the wrapping they come in. What we need more of is a simple concept that Sharjah, and Sharjah alone, does so bloody well – The Falafel Bar.
The falafel bars of Sharjah are bare-bones joints that have been frying up their fritters since the 80’s. These humble cafeterias have squatted on prime property just steps away from the Sharjah corniche, some of them probably not having washed their signboards since the heydays of Chart Attack on Channel 33. Or for my brown fellow mates who've lived through years at TMHS, IHS or...OO...OOEHS (now that was clumsy. Our Own never did have a sexy acronym did it? Sorry OOEHS'ers. Our Ownites? Here's my fav - Our Owners.)
(And with that frivolous parenthetical discussion, I have just made an army of new enemies.)
Getting back to the point of which era the falafel bars cropped up in, the reference point for the desi crew who grew up here are those good ol' greasy times when the local Hindi radio channel gave away two bottles of Minara sunflower oil FREE! to any and every competition winner, right after playing a tantalizing millisecond of a Bollywood song dropped in the midst of mind-numbingly endless advertising jingles (take the Atlas Jewelry one which 25 years later, has stuck so stubbornly in my mind that I still haven’t been able to mentally wallpaper it over with other more melodious memories.)
The Majaz strip of falafel bars holds two main contenders: Comodor, arguably the most famous one, and Frayha next door. As you continue driving down, Muna crawls into view as the all-vegetarian underdog that serves an easily memorizable menu: falafel, hummus, mutabbal, foul medames, fried eggplant, cauliflower and French fries – each served separately or assembled into multiple variations that get tightly tucked into cozy khubz rolls.
I’ve heard that Muna is a favourite of the all-veggie crowd who’d rather not deal with the scrumptiously carnivorous shawarma spit smack in front of their faces. Just like its meatier rivals down the street, Muna has tables crowded with all the ingredients necessary for a D-I-Y falafel sandwich. Skip the mediocre dips and just focus on creating your own chickpea fritter experience – crunch on a pickled carrot, squeeze a briny pepper, pluck some fresh leaves out of the jungle of herbs on your table, slather on some illegally good chilli sauce, and now you’re set to munch. The only missing element is the garlic-lemon-tahini dip, which my falafel bar mentor Sheban, wisely ordered from Freyha next door and smuggled into Muna with him.
This to me is real Farm-to-Table. Actually, it’s Farm ON the Table. There’s a selection of rayhaan (tulsi), purslane, mint, maybe amaranth, and my favourite za’atar (thyme) leaves just sprouting up like an afro from the water jugs on the table, completely blocking your view of anyone sitting across from you...
...but who cares? This is about reconnecting with a basic falafel experience and it’s almost better to block everything and everyone else out for a couple of minutes so you can savour the moist herby mush inside the crunchy falafel crust. I’ve never been wild about falafel, but I’ll give it to Muna that they serve up a plate of grease-free, fragrant, herby falafel with the appropriate cross-hatched crust of fried crispiness.
I will forever remember Muna as the place where I made my mushakal sandwich debut under the watchful guidance of Ali. Seriously, where has this cuddly Arabic falafel burrito been all my life? [Answer: probably hiding under a rock and weeping oily tears after the Big Mac domination of the world.]
Eggplant slivers and cauliflower florets heavy with deep-fried sweetness are tossed into a khubz that’s bursting at its seams with smashed falafel, juicy tomato wedges, parsley, chilli and tahini (I’ve been warned to keep the fries out of the sandwich.) Ali swears by the mushakal at Frayha next door, which means he’s just volunteered to go on air and rave about why that everything-in-a-falafel-bar’s-kitchen-sink sandwich is worth pulling out your hair/incessantly switching radio channels/counting sheep as you suffer through the traffic driving into Sharjah.
Found something even better than Frayha’s mushakal that deserves air time? Fine, tell me all about it right here. The day I launch that food show I mentioned in my last post (that day might be the only distant thing that comes after the unpredictable but wildly celebratory day when Etisalat fixes my internet connection), the still-to-be-born food show team and myself will consider trying out the killer dish you found at some secret restaurant in the UAE. And we'll make you, the dish, and the lucky bugger of a restaurant strut down the YouTube food ramp for cyber posterity.
On Jamal AbdelNasar Street, Close to Al Majaz Waterfront, Sharjah. Check out my google maps link here.