A popular piece of information, often shared and copied without verification, claims that the origin of the word “falafel” comes from the Coptic Φα Λα Φελ, meaning “containing a lot of beans.” However, this claim is laughable, and it is clear that it is incorrect and has no connection to Egyptian or Coptic heritage, neither closely nor distantly. In this article, I will debunk the errors in this claim, starting with its source.
Proponents of this ridiculous hypothesis rely on a Coptic-English dictionary called “The Abbreviated Coptic English Dictionary,” which is not an ancient text but a modern one, representing the contemporary Coptic language spoken by some Arab Christians in Egypt today. The author of this dictionary is Egyptian scholar Adeeb B. Makar, who published it in 1983 with funding from the Monastery of Saint Mina the Wonderworker in Alexandria. The monastery itself is also modern, having been established in 1959, and as a historical document, it holds no value. Let us explain why:
Adeeb B. Makar’s dictionary is specialized in modern Sahidic Coptic, which is the Coptic of the Egyptian Church. He focused on the currently used Christian religious vocabulary in his dictionary to serve the church. Thus, it is not a historical document to be relied upon regarding the Coptic language that was spoken in parts of Egypt during the Byzantine era.
According to the book “Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs” by Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner, an expert in ancient Egyptian, the ancient Egyptian term for beans is “SWNW” (𓅮𓏏𓈖), pronounced as “Zonu.” The ancient Egyptian language did not use the Arabic word for beans, “ful” or “fūl,” as suggested by the hypothesis of Adeeb B. Makar. There is no word similar to the Arabic name for beans in any of the Coptic languages. In fact, the ancient Coptic name for beans is “ⲃⲁⲩⲉ” (bauē). Notice how there is no “f” or “l” in the word, and it is not “ful” as proposed by Adeeb B. Makar and the Monastery of Saint Mina. There is no ancient Coptic evidence containing the word “fūl” with the meaning of beans.
Now let’s discuss the Arabic word فَلَاْفِلٌ “falafel,” which is a clear broken plural form of the word فِلْفِلٌ “filfil”. In Egypt, it is called طَعْمِيَّة “ta’amiya” and has been known by this name since the dish was introduced there. However, Egypt did not know the dish as فَلَاْفِلٌ “falafel” before the 20th century, and to this day, it is still widely referred to as “ta’amiya.”
Originally, “falafel” is an Aramaic word in its plural form, with its root being “plapil” (ܦܠܐܦܝܠ\𐡐𐡋𐡀𐡐𐡉𐡋), meaning small balls. Its singular form is “palpal” (𐡐𐡋𐡐𐡋) and “pilpāl” (𐡐𐡋𐡐𐡉𐡋). In its broken plural form, it becomes “filfil,” (filful) while in the Levant, it is called “bilbul.” The word “filfil” (pepper) was also named for the same reason, as it resembles small balls. The Aramaic word “palpal” originally came from the Indo-European languages of the East and does not have an Aramaic root. Some of its derivatives include the Arabic “filfil” (فِلْفِلٌ), the Sanskrit “pippali” (पिप्पलि), the Armenian “պղպեղ” (flfl), and the Hebrew “פִּלְפֵּל” (pilpēl). All of these words share the same original meaning: small balls.
Even the Arabic name for beans itself “fūl” is of Asian Indo-European origin and not Arabic, coming from the same source that provided the Aramaic word “palpal.” The Indo-European word “pul,” meaning a small ball, evolved in Babylonian Aramaic to become “pūlā” (פֹּולא), meaning a grain or seed of legumes, from which the Arabs derived the word “fūl” (beans). The original Arabic name for beans is “baqlā.” It is worth considering that the Indo-European word has an ancient Semitic-Arabic equivalent, “pūl,” meaning a grain corn or seed.
All of this etymology is based on the extensive archaeological and linguistic research of Ali Akbar Dehkhoda al-Qazwini, who published his findings in 1931 in the “Dehkhoda Dictionary.” He is known for his impartiality and scientific methods in research and investigation, as he presents tangible evidence and proofs. His famous dictionary sometimes irritates Persian nationalists.
The only mention of a word resembling “falafel” in ancient cookbooks can be found in the Abbasid Baghdadi cookbook “Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh”, and there is nothing older than that. It is a recipe for “Aruz Mufalfal”, which contains neither pepper nor beans. The 13th-century book “Lisan al-Arab” explains that the hair is “mufalfal” when its curls become tight. “Adim mufalfal” (broth) means something that is scented by rubbing it with a saffron’s solution. It is also said that when someone walks with a swagger, they are “yatafalfal.” Ibn Manzur states that “fulful” is a well-known seed that does not grow in Arab lands, and its frequent use in their speech is of Persian origin. “Mufalfal” is a type of fabric with designs resembling small chili peppers. A “mufalfal” garment has patterns imitating the roundness and small size of peppers. “Mufalfal” wine is wine that has had peppers added to it, giving it a sharp taste. “Mufalfal” drink is a beverage that has a spicy taste similar to that of peppers.
All the discussion in the text above focuses on the origin of the word فَلَاْفِلٌ “falafel” only. If we were to delve into the origin of the recipe itself, I, personally, do not believe in the ancient nature of the falafel dish at all. Instead, I see it as a product of the modern industrial era, emerging as a response to the need for providing low-cost, high nutritional value meals for workers.
The only source on which the myth of falafel dating back to Ancient Egypt or early Christian Egypt relies is a hypothesis presented in a French book published in English in 1999, titled _Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present_, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari. Although this source suggests some information about the origin of falafel, it does not mention a specific source revealing the basis for this hypothesis or historical details about Ancient Egypt. It is a book that offers a romantic hypothesis in a narrative manner without providing a single piece of evidence to support it. Thus, it is not a historical document.
If falafel were truly ancient, we would find versions of its recipe in Italian, Greek, and Spanish cuisines, all of which have borrowed and adapted from ancient Egyptian cuisine and medieval Arab cuisine. In reality, falafel and “ta’amiya” are not even found in the culinary heritage of the Arab Maghreb, indicating that they are a very modern recipe still spreading throughout the world. I believe that searching for its origin within the Middle East is pointless; it is enough to say that falafel is an Arab dish that was born during the Ottoman era and leave it at that.
Finally, the hypothesis that I find acceptable about the origin of falafel, given that it was not mentioned in any ancient cookbooks before the 19th century, whether in Arabic or other languages, is that it was initially made from bulgur wheat in the form of unstuffed kibbeh balls. Then, as chickpea cultivation spread in the Levant during the late Middle Ages, people replaced the bulgur with chickpeas. When the falafel recipe made its way from Palestine to Egypt, Levantine chickpeas were replaced with Egyptian fava beans, giving birth to the “ta’amiya” recipe, which also bears an Arabic name. This dish was unknown in Egypt during the ancient Coptic era.