Israelis Ariel Wakstein, 29, and Gal Finezilber didn't have any extraordinary plans when they were presented with the opportunity to start a business venture in China. Wakstein had been studying Chinese medicine in Chengdu for the past four years; Finezilber was working as a sous chef in Israel. After Wakstein's in-law, a restaurant manager, visited Chengdu, he proposed the pair open the city's first falafel stand. Two months later, they're feeding between 150 and 200 customers per day. And now? They're planning to turn Chengdu into a falafel feeding frenzy. And then, the world. Just as soon as they open their second stand.
Why did you choose falafel instead of something else?
Gal: Falafel is Israeli's traditional food.
Ariel: Israeli's national food. Because Israel is not an old country, so we look at it as a regional food. Falafel exists for at least 2,000 years that we know, but to put it in the pita, with the salad and everything as sort of a sandwich, is more of an Israeli thing. And that's what we wanted to bring it here. And also the local people like things that are deep-fried. It's not strange or a turn-off for them. It's very popular in Israel so it's an easy connection for us. The falafel stands in Israel are exactly this style.
Gal: Actually this is a bit fancy. In Israel you just have the falafel, and you don't have a menu; it will just say "Falafel," and that's it. But the original way to do it is stand outside the falafel stand, eating the falafel, and the tahini should run down your chin.
Ariel: When it's a good falafel stand, you see people standing around it eating falafels, eating salad, adding tahini to their pita, and it's not so much of a restaurant—at most there could be three or four tables just for comfort.
Gal: It's takeaway food. But it has to be eaten fresh. Chinese sometimes buy it and take it home.
Ariel: It's new for them, so they want to take it and give it to their husband or their wife or their child to try it.
So what do the locals think of your falafels?
Ariel: I think it's still new and early to judge how the locals will accept it.
Gal: We did make it spicier for the Sichuan taste. For me it was hard in the beginning. Coming from Eastern Europe, we can't eat spicy food—it's a known thing. So when I first tasted the falafel it was really spicy for me. But I got used to it. So we try to measure the taste to the Sichuan taste. Some of them really like it. Some of them throw it away after a few bites. But when I saw people throw it away after a few bites they just ate the top of the pita—they didn't even get to the falafel.
Ariel: How many people did you see throw it away?
Gal: I saw one.
Ariel: He saw one!
Gal: You know, it really bothers me.
Ariel: We have very warm responses from the Western crowd because I think they're more used to this flavor, and it's easier for us to believe them also. When Chinese tell us they like it I always wonder whether they're just being polite or what. But I had some very good responses from Chinese who are not from Chengdu—people from Taiwan, and Xi'an and Beijing, Hong Kong. I think the locals are curious [when they see two foreigners in the stand]. They see us, they come, they look, they don't really know what it is. They stare at the menu. The common response is "Falafel shi sazi dongxi?" Or "Falafel shi shenme?" "What is falafel?" We hear it all the time.
What's your goal?
Gal: We're hoping to open a chain of restaurants.
Ariel: We're going to be the biggest falafel in the world! Which is not so difficult since if we make it in Chengdu already we'll be bigger than any falafel in Israel, size-wise. We're hoping at first three to five shops and we'll see how it goes. I think Chengdu is not such an easy market to break into. They love their local food.
Are you worried about imitators?
Gal: They won't be as good as ours.
Ariel: The falafel recipe is a secret. Also in Israel—the owner knows how to make the falafel, and he makes it at home.
What if it doesn't succeed?
Ariel: My long-term plan is still Chinese medicine. I just hope the falafel will provide some stable income on the side.
Gal: I came here because of the opportunity. I didn't know much about China before I came, I didn't know Chengdu. I knew Shanghai and Beijing. And Hong Kong. That's it. I thought Chengdu was gonna be like a village, a huge village, with dirt everywhere and stuff. So I was amazed when I came here.
Ariel: [sarcastically] You were so right! I think it's an adventure also—we have a chance to make money here, but it's not only that. There's something very exciting in it, and even if it doesn't work out it's still an amazing experience for us.
Gal: And to make people food they don't really know it's really challenging, it's really fun. It's like you're creating something new for them.
Ariel: And it really feels great to see Chinese people enjoying falafel in a pita. I enjoy so much their culture and their food and their Chinese medicine, and their philosophy, so in a way it's paying them back a little bit—even though they're paying me for the falafel.
Falafel Laila Kehua Bei Lu location
Falafel Laila's new second location at Liansheng Xiang/联升巷 (Chunxi Lu) also sells kebab in addition to their regular menu items.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 47 ("how to V").