If a street vendor asked me two years ago “Hey, want a falooda?” I’d have no idea what they were talking about and might even think them audacious. What would you say if someone asked you?
Now I know the answer is a hearty “Yes!”, especially during the slow burn of summer.
My first encounter with this icy drink was on a food tour in Jaffa last July, a welcome respite from the tenacious heat. I made a cursory stop at Abu Hassan, where hummus aficionados gather for their daily swipe; pita dipped in warm, smooth hummus with lemony olive oil sauce. With no time to dawdle I ordered a small tub and walked to find the cookie man in his modest one window outpost. There’s a handwritten sign painted on a wall a few meters away. Home Cookies it says, but most of the clients come by word of mouth (thanks Ariella for telling me about this great bakery!).
As I approached he plied me with tehina shortbreads, as rich as halva, with the same intense sesame flavor. But it is the savory rings called ka’ak that are my favorite. Perfumed with the mahlab, the ground pit of the St. Lucie cherry, these airy masterpieces are how his Syrian mother made them.
I bid him goodbye and made my way to another famous bakery, Abulafia on Yefet Street to buy fresh pita, puffs of steam still rising from them. Meandering in the noonday heat laden with hummus, cookies and pita turned me into a lethargic s schlump. I passed a few mom and pop shops and hesitated for a moment, enticed by the cool milk puddings in the showcase. It was then I noticed a waist high aluminum canister and was curious to know what it was.
“Falooda”,said the vendor “Falooda?” I asked. “You drink it” he responded, gesturing with his hand. “I’ll take one” I said.
For the uninitiated, it is a rosewater slurpy with small pieces vermicelli noodles suspended within it. To me this made as much sense as chicken soup with marshmallows, an exotic and completely new combination. Aside from the strange sensation of the noodles slipping down my throat, the drink was surprisingly refreshing, in a brain freeze kind of way. I became a falooda fan.
Fast forward a couple of months, I made another discovery with the help of fellow food bloggers while exploring the Indian grocery stores at Ramle Souk (check out Katherine Martinelli’s wonderful post of our adventures). At Maharaja, right opposite the souk, Liz zoomed in on a few unidentified spices, what at first looked to me like black sesame seeds. The clerk told us the grains were used for falooda, though I didn’t know how this was connected. Later Liz did her own researched and informed me we had bought basil seeds, an ingredient for an Indian version of falooda.
Indian falooda is often made with arrow root starch noodles and not rice vermicelli as I use here. Plantago seeds can be substituted for basil seeds. In Taiwan they have bubble tea, which may not be a direct derivative of falooda but is certainly reminiscent of it. Instead of basil seeds tapioca pearls are used with green tea flavoring being the most popular.
To avoid the bright artificial rose syrup I decided to use strawberries instead, not a traditional ingredient. The basil seeds do not have a distinct flavor but add an interesting textual dimension. While the drink was a hit with my family everyone asked “What’s up with the noodles?”
2 teaspoons of basil seeds
1 small basket of strawberries
2-3 tablespoons honey or sugar
½ cup vermicelli, broken into small pieces
1 ½ cups milk
2 teaspoons of rose water (use more or less depending on the strength of the brand used)
2 scoops vanilla ice cream (optional, I didn’t have this but it is a popular addition)
½ cup heavy cream (whipping cream)
¼ cup roughly ground almonds or pistachios
Put the basil seeds in a small bowl and cover with water for about ½ hour. They should expand and look a bit like fish or frog eggs (at least to me).
Wash the strawberries. Remove the stems and discard blemished and bruised fruit. Chop the strawberries into 2-3 pieces and place them in a small pot. Heat on low with the cover off. Cook until the strawberries soften into a soft mass and add 1-2 tablespoon of sugar or honey and mix. Continue to heat until most of the moisture has evaporated. Strain the strawberry pulp, reserving the syrup. When cool, add 1 teaspoon of rosewater syrup.
Meanwhile boil water in a small pot. Add the vermicelli and cook until soft (according to package directions). Drain and set aside.
Mix the milk with the honey (or sugar), 1/3 of the strawberry syrup and the remaining teaspoon of rose water. Add the noodles and ice cream. Mix to combine.
Combine the cream with 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey and whip until peaks are formed.
Assemble the drink:
Divide the remaining strawberry syrup into two tall glasses or three smaller ones. Top with the milk mixture, pouring slowly to keep the layers separate. Gently spoon the plumped up basil seeds on top. Garnish with whipped cream and nuts. Serve immediately.