Ben Assaraf, one of five children, grew up adjacent to a kibbutz. Not an Israeli kibbutz, but the Rollins Park Apartments in Rockville behind Congressional Plaza, where generations of Israelis have forged a tightly knit Israeli-American community.
A student at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School before graduating from Walter Johnson High School, Assaraf, 29, learned to prepare popular Israeli street foods, especially falafel, from his mom. Over the past three years, he perfected falafel-making by experimenting and taste-testing ingredients recipes. During the height of the pandemic, he opened a small falafel joint with two high school friends. These days, you’ll find Assaraf making and serving falafel and other Israeli street food at Dalia’s Falafel — like a nice Jewish boy, he named the restaurant after his mother — in Bethesda.
Do you remember eating falafel as a kid?
My whole family’s Israeli. I was the first one born here. Falafel was obviously always a big part of what we ate. My family also ate a lot of beef … I liked veggies, but I wasn’t someone who would make a meal out of something that’s not meat. But every summer I remember getting off the plane [in Tel Aviv] and the first thing we would do is get shawarma and falafel. It was always one of my favorite foods growing up.
What’s special about Israeli falafel?
When you go to the shuk in Jerusalem, there’s all these different stands. It’s honestly the best food in Israel. … You just can’t find food like that anywhere else.
What’s the secret to making a good falafel?
It’s the whole process. My mom taught me to never skip any steps.
What’s your advice to someone making falafel from scratch at home?
Make sure you’re putting the right amount of herbs and spices in. Then, before balling it all up, you can always taste a little bit to see if it’s missing some garlic or missing a little bit of something. Then you’ve got to mix it well.
Falafel is also all about the fresh toppings. What toppings are your favorites?
Honestly, I love red cabbage. I love the Israeli salad — the red onion, tomato, cucumber and radishes with some fresh-squeezed lemon and a little olive oil. That’s the standard.
Charif or shug – red hot sauce or green hot sauce?
I grew up in a house eating a lot of spicy. [I do] the green one here because that’s just what my mom made at home growing up.
Chumus or tahina?
Chumus is good with other stuff, but when it comes to falafel, tahina just fits it better.
When I’m in Israel, I’ve noticed that Israelis can eat a falafel and multitask without spilling anything on their shirt. I’ve seen people driving with a falafel, riding a bike, even a motorcycle. Where can I find you eating a falafel?
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do while eating falafel. ■
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.