If someone asked you which traditional Lebanese food is one of the oldest, what would you say? We’ll give you a hint: it’s brown, with herbs that you can smell from a mile away, round and fried to perfection. If you haven’t guessed yet, you can bet we’re talking about the ever-so-mouthwatering Falafel. Even though the origin of Falafel isn’t crystal clear, it’s been rumored to date all the way back to Pharanoic Egypt. All we know is Falafel has been part of our street food culture for as long as we can remember (and probably our great-grandparents remember). It was only fitting that we went to enjoy one of our culture’s oldest CULINARY traditions at BEIRUT’S first EVER FALAFEL SHOP– Falafel Sahyoun.
In 1933, Mustafa Sahyoun, father of current owner Zoheir Sahyoun, opened the original Falafel Sahyoun, where no more than 7 people could stand and be served. 82 years later, it still stands strong. Mustafa Sahyoun started making falafel from home, because at the time it wasn’t very popular to open a sandwich store, his son Zoheir explained. “He used to make them from home and send them out with delivery boys. Just like you would see men selling kaak over their heads in a bucket, my dad would sell his falafel in a similar way.”
Zoheir started working with his dad when he was 15 years old, watching and learning as much as he could about the business. He used to rush home right after school to help his dad out, spending hours and hours doing everything from cooking, to wrapping, to working the register. It’s what truly made him happy. In 1967 his dream was to be working full time in the store and that is when he dropped out and started working full time. “This shop is my life,” Zoheir gushed shyly, “If you truly love and adore your work, you can create incredible things that you never thought were possible and that is what happened with me just in this store.”
1933 until 2015 covers a lot of Beirut’s history and Falafel Sahyoun was present for it all. From 1977 until 1992 the street that is home to Zoheir’s shop was considered the “green line”, in other words a danger zone. While he would try to visit the shop as much as possible, the escalation of war eventually brought down the building and along with it, the original shop. With the end of the civil war, 1992 saw the first year that the citizens of Beirut truly had the chance to breathe again – and you can bet that Zoheir was the first one “breathing.” After the building was rebuilt and the situation was a little bit calmer, Zoheir was the first one on the entire street to reopen his business, which to him is his proudest moment. They even dedicated an article in the newspaper L’Orient le Jour for his bravery. “The moment I reopened our store and got back to work was the moment I found peace and clarity in my life – this place makes me extremely happy.”
Zoheir explained to us that he knows his shop isn’t a five star restaurant, but his customers are people that come from the highest high and the lowest low and come from all over the world to try his Falafel. He has customers that have been coming since the place opened and has seen many, many generations of families continuously become regulars. “Once a person becomes a customer, they don’t change – it’s an easy food to find anywhere else, but they know our quality and they know the amount of hard work that is put into each sandwich.” Even the non-Lebanese love his Falafels: “From the moment they step off the plane, their first stop is here to grab a Falafel – before they even go home”. Talk about serious cravings.
We couldn’t help but notice the simple yet slightly old décor and we wanted to know if there were any renovation plans in the near future. He smiled and said, ”This place has been with me forever, why would I want to change and wipe away the memories that come with it; from every accomplishment, special ingredient, and customers that turned into family – it would be wrong to change what to me is already perfect.” And with that perfect idea, we left, our hearts full and our tummies even fuller.
Visit Falafel Sahyoun on Damascus Road, just outside Downtown Beirut or call 01 659 139