The Southern Swedish city of Malmö is principally known for three things: its cultural diversity, the football team Malmö FF, and the rather peculiar popularity of the fried chickpea balls known as falafel.
Maybe it's not as odd as it seems. Considering how immensely popular fast-food kebabs are—and even more so the gastronomic perversion known as kebab pizza, a completely irresistible creation for anyone wearing sweatpants or enduring a hangover, or both— Swedes are inclined to embrace Middle Eastern food. But the tradition of eating falafel in Sweden is more or less limited to Malmö.
Falafel was brought to Malmö by immigrants from Israel and Lebanon. Youssif Iskandarani was one of the early falafel entrepreneurs in the city. Along with his brothers, he founded the Falafel No 1 empire: a group of falafel vendors with a unified concept—all based on their father's recipe and philosophy—whose outposts outnumbered McDonald's restaurants in Malmö for many years. Iskandarani explains that the basic falafel wrap comes in two sizes, large and extra large ("The medium sized bread is too small; you have to eat two or three of those") and includes lettuce, parsley, tomatoes, onion, pickles, and sometimes pickled turnips, with a choice of dressing (mild, hot, and garlic, usually in combination) rolled up in flat bread. It's a rather healthy choice compared to other kinds of fast food.
"It's not highly regarded food, not even in the Middle East, but people here are very proud of it nonetheless. That is quite typical for the Malmö soul," says journalist Federico Moreno. As the former editor for Falafelbloggen (The Falafel blog)—hosted by the newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet—he published a series of articles investigating the falafel business in Malmö, and took on the somewhat pretentious task of deciding who makes the best falafel in the city.
The blog became very popular, and reached an incredible amount of people. During the mere seven weeks that the blog was updated, Moreno wasn't able to go anywhere without being hassled by readers about falafel. "The relationship that people in Malmö have to falafel is completely unique," he says. "There is so much that can be told about Malmö through falafel; things that tie the city together, and that gives it its modern identity."
To understand how falafel came to be so important for Malmö as a city, you need a little background. At the end of the 1980s, Sweden was struck by a self-inflicted financial crisis, and suffered from economic depression and mass unemployment. Communities such as Malmö, which relied heavily on the production industry, were deeply affected.
At the time, falafel was quite a new concept, but several important factors made its popularization possible. In the 1995, a falafel wrap cost about $1.40, while a Big Mac at McDonalds in Sweden would have set you back $4, according to The Economist's Big Mac Index. The low price and large portions made the falafel wrap the primary choice of street food for a great number of people.
Over the past 30 years, the price hasn't inflated all that much. In 2015, a falafel wrap is about $3, but every now and again you still find falafel for less than two bucks. "It's very difficult to compete with such low prices," says Moreno. "It can work as a marketing tool while starting up a new business, but I don't think that you can sell falafel consistently for 15 kronor [$1.70] without losing money, unless there's a considerable amount of undeclared work involved." He thinks that the undeclared worker economy has been essential in establishing falafel in Malmö, because it keeps down costs for producers and consumers in a place where a lot of people barely get by.
Iskandarani has a different explanation for the low prices. "My father didn't want to become rich. When we started out, he said to not worry about making profit. We were to help people get high-quality food, and give away 300 falafel biscuits every day. If we sought profit, we would lose everything, he said; but if we thought about quality instead, the profit would find us," says Iskandarani. His restaurant, The Orient House of Falafel No 1, was named Malmö's best by The Falafel blog.
While affordability may be the main reason for the falafel wrap's longevity, one should not overlook the significance of the ever-growing practice of vegetarianism. As one of the few fast food choices for non-carnivores, falafel has received a lot of attention from vegetarians looking for a quick meal that isn't popcorn. The demand for good vegetarian cuisine has had noteworthy impact on Malmö's food scene, which has featured exclusively vegetarian restaurants for many years, and has played a major part in promoting falafel as a healthy and ecologically rational choice.
Moreno notes that falafel has become something of a phenomenon in Malmö, a reputation that's grown outside of the city limits, where falafel—good or bad—is still rare. That's created a kind of decree for visitors: When you are in Malmö, you have to try the falafel. From that, a sense of community is born—and a humble ball of fried chickpeas becomes a symbol for the whole city.