March 2007

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Felafel with fixings.
The Kosher Table

Mama's Vegetarian: Fantastic falafel and a whole lot more

-- Lisa Kelvin Tuttle

I first heard about Mama’s while eating with a friend at another kosher spot in Philadelphia. I asked her about other kosher restaurants she had tried in the area, and after a rundown of the notable merits of each place in town --- a pretty short list when you compare it to New York City --- we got onto the subject of genuine Middle Eastern. My friend asked if I had been to Mama’s, where “the falafels are as good as in Israel!” I had not, and I wondered if they were indeed worth the schlep from the suburbs. My family and I recently took the trip to Philadelphia to found out for ourselves.

Opened two years ago by Haviv David, and run with the help of his sons Shauli and Matan, Mama’s Vegetarian is a teeny storefront on South 20th Street in Center City that is bright and clean and decorated with posters of colorful veggies. The menu, like the restaurant itself, is not very big, so between the four of us, we were able to try most of their selections.

Mama’s Vegetarian:
18 S. 20th Street (between Ludlow and Ranstead)
Philadelphia, PA 19103
The restaurant makes two Soups of the Day (each costs $3.00 and is served with freshly made pita), and we tried and enjoyed them both. The Mushroom Barley was Sephardic style with tomatoes and veggies, and the Tomato Rice (my kids’ favorite of the two) was light and tasty.

Have you ever tried authentic Israeli bourekas? Similar to a knish, but made with puff pastry rather than a thinly rolled dough crust, bourekas are a snack staple throughout the Mediterranean. The word comes from the Turkish word for “pie” (borek), and they are cousins of the Spanish and Portuguese empanadas. The bourekas at Mama’s - filled with either spinach, potatoes, or mushrooms - were a fun surprise. We expected to be served the traditional triangular bourekas, but instead received big dinner plate-sized coils. According to Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food, the coil is popular with Iberian Jews, who call it a “rose,” while we might call it a “snail.” The restaurant had sold out of the spinach filled bourekas the night we visited, but we all enjoyed the potato and mushroom varieties ($5.00 each). To turn this appetizer into a dinner, we made ours a platter, which was served with salads and hard boiled eggs ($7.50).

As for the purpose of our trip –-- did the falafel deserve our friend’s high praise? Yes, indeed. “MAMA’s sandwich,” as their falafel is called, is that perfect mix of crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, with a not-too-spicy flavor ($5.00 for the large or $3.00 for the small). We made ours a “MAMA’s Meal” ($7.50), with the addition of freshly made French fries, which were not at all greasy and cooked to perfection, and a soda.

All sandwiches are made with Mama’s own homemade pita - either white or whole wheat, fresh baked daily - and are served with hummus and vegetables. A word about Mama’s pita: it’s really good, fluffy-chewy in consistency and thicker and more flavorful than the store-bought variety. Best of all, you can take your pita to go ($3.00 for a half-dozen and $6.00 for a dozen, with orders of two dozen or more requiring advance notice).

There are also many different platters on the menu, all served with a huge portion of hummus, assorted vegetables, and pita ($7.00). Salad Combination Platters come in two sizes and feature Mama’s big colorful selection of imported Israeli and homemade pickled and fried vegetables ($6.00 for the large; $4.00 for the small). We enjoyed the side salad bar, open to all customers, that includes all of the fried and pickled vegetables, as well as two varieties of homemade schug - a colorful fresh hot pepper sauce typically served with falafel, one mildly spicy and one super duper spicy.

You might make the mistake of passing over the “Fried Combo.” I’ll admit that this is not the nicest name for some delicious vegetarian versions of crispy Mediterranean appetizers: 3 Cubas (a sweet-savory tofu filling in pastry) and 3 Cigars (this shape is purported to be an Iraqi specialty). A large entree portion of hummus ($4.50) is great for sharing. Mama’s also serves homemade vegetable quiche ($7.50, served with hummus, vegetables and pita).

For dessert, we went for the baklava, one of two dessert choices. The other option was apple cake ($3.00 a slice), which had sold out. We were not disappointed, however, as Mama’s homemade baklava is quite good. What could be bad about honey and pistachios, crispy-chewy, and full of flavor ($2.00 a portion)? I asked Haviv for the recipe. ”Sure!” he replied, laughing, then added, “What are you, kidding?!” So you’ll just have to order the baklava for yourself to see what I mean.

Mama’s also has a huge selection of fresh fruit nectars, juices, iced teas, and sodas -including ‘Malty’ non-alcoholic malt beverage from Israel, as well as fresh mint tea and Turkish coffee.

They deliver. They cater. And they’re cash only.

To sum it all up, Mama’s Vegetarian’s simple, delicious food is flavorful, colorful, and filling! I asked Haviv what he wants folks to know about his restaurant. A man of few words, he said, “Tell them it’s a very good value. Everything’s good. Everything is fresh.”

I agree.

Until we eat again,


Mama’s Vegetarian is under the strict supervision of Community Kashrus of Philadelphia.

Chickpea Fritters

Although there are many mixes and pre-packaged frozen falafel on the market these days, nothing beats the flavor of freshly made falafel. They require some work, but the results make it all worthwhile. In Israel, falafel are usually made with chickpeas, though in Egypt, they are commonly made with large dried fava beans. This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden’s fava bean version in The Book of Jewish Food.

  • 1 pound dried chickpeas
  • A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, or a mixture of the two, rinsed and well dried
  • 8 scallions, finely chopped
  • salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon or more cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 6 garlic cloves or to taste, crushed with a garlic press
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Vegetable oil for frying

  1. Soak the chickpeas in cool water for 24 hours. Drain, rinse, and drain well.
  2. Chop the parsley and scallions in a food processor and set aside.
  3. Process the chickpeas and blend to a smooth paste - the longer you process them, the better. Add salt, cayenne pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic, and baking powder, and continue to process until the mixture holds well together. Add the parsley-scallion mixture and blend very briefly (just enough to mix them in). Allow the mixture to rest for 1 hour.
  4. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a deep frying pan until medium hot. Take small walnut-sized lumps and make round flat cakes about 1 ½ inches in diameter, and deep fry a few at a time. It is easier if you make them all at once and push them in with a flexible spatula, since they are too soft to be picked up. Initially, the oil should be hot enough to so that it sizzles as the falafel go in. Then reduce the heat to low. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Lift out with a slotted spatula and drain on paper towels. Serve with Israeli salad and warm pita. If you dare, try it with schug (see recipe below) or bottled hot sauce.


This fresh spicy-hot pepper sauce has its origins in the kitchens of Yemeni Jews. This recipe is attributed to ‘Katie’ on the website apartmenttherapy.com. Makes about two cups.

  • 1 pound of red or green hot peppers (you can mix it up, but use red or green for bright, consistent color)
  • 1 head fresh garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cumin
  • Black pepper and sea salt to taste
  • Olive oil to cover
  • Optional: fresh cilantro leaves, cardamom, and lemon juice.

  1. Throw your peppers and garlic into a food processor and purée.
  2. Add spices and pulse a few times to mix. Store the mixture in a glass jar and cover with olive oil. Refrigerate. Make sure to wash your hands before touching your eyes or anything else.
Baklava, a Middle Eastern favorite.


Baklava is a Middle Eastern favorite. Though most associated with Greek cuisine, it is beloved by Jews of Sephardic origin. This recipe is from a new favorite cookbook of mine, The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking, written by British food writer Marlena Spieler.

  • 3/4 cup melted butter
  • 1 box frozen phyllo dough, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons clear, thick honey
  • 1/4 cup superfine sugar
  • Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 3/4 cups finely chopped blanched almonds
  • 1 3/4 cups finely chopped walnuts
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped pistachios (plus some extra to decorate)

For the syrup:

  • 1 3/4 cups superfine sugar
  • 1/2 cup clear honey
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 strips thinly pared lemon rind
  • 1 teaspoon orange flower or rose water

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Brush the base of a shallow 12” x 8” loose-bottomed or jelly roll pan with a little of the melted butter.
  2. Using the tin as a guide, cut the sheets of phyllo pastry with a sharp knife so that they fit perfectly in the tin.
  3. Place one sheet of pastry in the base of the tin, brush with a little melted butter, then repeat until you have used half of the pastry sheets. Set the remaining pastry aside and cover with a clean dish towel.
  4. To make the filling: place the lemon juice, honey, and sugar in a pan and heat gently until dissolved. Stir in the lemon rind, cinnamon, and chopped nuts. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Spread half the filling over the pastry, cover with three layers of the phyllo pastry and butter, and then spread the remaining filling over the pastry.
  6. Finish by using up the remaining sheets of pastry and butter for the top, and liberally brush the top of the pastry with butter.
  7. Using a sharp knife, carefully mark the pastry into squares, almost cutting through the filling. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour, or until crisp and golden brown.
  8. Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place the superfine sugar, honey, water, and lemon rind in a pan and stir over low heat until the sugar and honey have dissolved. Bring to a boil and let boil for 10 minutes until the mixture has thickened slightly.
  9. Take the syrup off the heat and leave to cool slightly. Remove the baklava from the oven. Remove and discard the lemon rind from the syrup, stir in the orange flower or rose water, then pour syrup over the pastry. Leave to soak for at least 6 hours (preferably preparing the dessert the day before you want to serve it). Cut into squares, decorate with chopped pistachios, and serve.

Previously on the Kosher Table

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