A crunchy, golden ball of smushed chickpeas and spices is the key ingredient in falafel sandwiches as well as the center of a controversy between Israelis and some of their Arab neighbors. Emblematic of bigger battles over land, history and power, both sides claim it as their own. The spiced fritters are labeled Israel’s “national snack” on postcards, but dishes made with chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) date back thousands of years. Many believe that early Egyptian Copts created chickpea or fava bean fritters for meatless Lenten meals. They have since been prepared all over the Middle East by Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese (including Egyptian and Syrian Jews). This hotly debated topic of falafel-ownership poses the question: Can one nation truly claim proprietary rights to a food that is eaten across the globe?
While you are mulling over this spicy dispute, you might as well be chomping on a warm crescent of bread filled with the falafel balls in question and loaded with as many fresh salads as you can squeeze into your pita pocket.
Berkeley’s Maoz Vegetarian (2395 Telegraph Ave., 510-356-4090, www.maozusa.com) embodies the characteristic Israeli way to enjoy these crunchy croquettes — with an unlimited salad bar of veggies and sauces. It is the western-most outpost of a worldwide chain started in 1991 by two Israelis who opened their first stand in Amsterdam.
The squeaky-clean space, with basic benches and tables, is tiled across the walls and ceiling in a loud blue-green geometric pattern that makes you feel like you are sitting in the belly of an anime dragon.
Maoz’ standout feature is its rainbow of freshly made veggie salads including: beets, carrots, crunchy red cabbage, coleslaw, flash-fried broccoli and cauliflower, olives, pickles, the classic tomato/cucumber mix, plus tahini, cilantro salsa and hot green chili sauce to squirt on top of your DIY creation. The best part: You get to come back to top off your falafel as long as you have pita to pile on. So even your last bite can have the perfect balance of mush and crunch.