There is something about falafels that I simply adore. Whilst I have never really sat down to meditate on the many wonders of these things, it would appear to stem from a combination of the savoury-spicy flavour, the nutty-crumbly texture, the protein punch, the sensuous smell, the inoffensive and easy-to-eat size, and the harmonious – and quite heavenly – relationship with houmous, salad and pita. Of course, the fact that they are inextricably associated with vegetarianism helps as well. In Singapore the whole falafel scene is rather niche, being centred around the Middle Eastern eateries of Kampong Glam, and two other bastions of vegetarian virtue – Fill-a-Pita in Shenton Way and Pita Pan in MBS and Marina Square.
You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I read good things – lots of good things – about Kuumba du Falafel in Shinsen, Tokyo. It’s a place that is fully vegan, and is absolutely raved about in the blogosphere. Unlike in Singapore, where non-vegetarians often feel like they will leave hungry and/or disappointed if they go to a vegetarian eatery, Kuumba du F. is the darling of all. It’s fully vegan, but like the nearby Nagi Shokudo doesn’t flaunt that fact. Instead it uses its hipster-cool vibe to attract the punters, and its formidable falafels (and houmous, and lentil soup) to keep them coming back for more. It’s a sophisticated place that caters to a discerning clientele; hats off to both.
All this being said, whilst my visit to Kuumba du F. was propelled by a wave of eager anticipation, I couldn’t help but find the location a little underwhelming. It’s nestled next to a web of busy overpasses that constantly whirr with the sound of traffic; the environment and frontage give the impression of urban austerity. But open the door and the warming aroma of cumin helps to melt away any apprehensions. The lighting is soft, the decor as minimal as it is natural, and the countertops stacked with rows of dried figs, dates and nuts. And with a logo that’s one part charming, one part playful and two parts creepy, it soon became clear to me that Kuumba du F. is one hell of a distinctive place.
For those of you that were wondering about the name (I was), a quick sniff around Google suggests that “Kuumba” is equated with creativity in Swahili (or, more specifically, the desire to make the community a more beautiful and beneficial place). It comprises one of seven principles that are encompassed by the term Kwanzaa – a weeklong celebration of African-American culture that apparently occurs every year throughout African diasporic communities in America and Europe. So whilst the connection to Japan and falafel may be a tenuous one, the spirit of creativity is obvious. Just look at the picture below!
To cut (finally) to the chase, the half falafel sandwich (¥880) I had was visually stunning. I felt like I had been handed a bouquet of flowers, not lunch. The vividness and selection of colours, and the arrangement of the salad were absolutely beautiful. Too good to eat, almost.
After what felt like a good ten minutes of dumbfounded staring, my stomach kicked my mind into gear and I levelled up to the next challenge: how to eat this thing. Elegantly but slowly with a fork? Attack it with the mouth? Dismantle it and look like a complete wimp? Either way invariably results in some sort of embarrassment. I settled for a combination of options 1 and 2, the end result being an eating style not unlike that of a prudish caveman. Or so I imagined.
From a consumption perspective, the genius of this sandwich lies in its construction. The eater is treated to wave after wave of flavour that keeps the excitement levels buoyant until the very last bite. First you get the zingy mint dressing and the top layer of veg: crazy mizuna leaves, fried aubergine strips, lettuce and tomato. All of them bursting with crunchy freshness and colour. Next comes the wedges of cucumber and the houmous. And at the bottom? The part you’ve been waiting for all along – the falafels and the pita. A culinary crescendo that I challenge anyone not to enjoy.
Of course the base layer is what this thing is all about – it’s the soul of the sandwich. The wholemeal pita managed to stay warm and chewy, despite the sheer volume of gunk shoved on top of it. And the falafels? Oh the falafels, those beautiful falafels. Spicy, soft and granular, they were like squashed little globes of greatness.
Eating this sandwich is a multi-sensory experience. The crunchiness, the pepperiness, the spiciness, the hot, the cold, the colour, it all comes together in a wonderful melee of energy and enthusiasm. Even the napkin you are given to wipe the muck from your face with is thick and luxuriant, like a miniature blanket. Incredible. Next time – and there will be a next time – it’s full-size for me. Plus an extra side of houmous. And most probably a lentil soup as well. Can’t wait.
Time Out Tokyo’s review
Khao Man Girl’s review
Sakai Nakako’s review (Japanese)
Bon Voyage Vegan’s review
The Shimokitazawa Food Diaries’ review
The Wikipedia entry on Kwanzaa
A Daily Mail article on the British love of houmous