From Italian polpette to French boulette to Lebanese falafel: a journey through lexicon and cultures
Polpette take us back to our childhood. For many Italians, their flavour has the same evocative power of Proust’s famous madeleine: a bite and you travel back immediately to the age of six, when your grandmother used to prepare this dish especially for you. A dish of minced meat, seasoned and mixed with various ingredients, compressed into the shape of a slightly flattened ball, fried or cooked in tomato sauce (see Treccani), the polpette have won undisputed success over the centuries even if, over such a long period of time, they have changed frequently in the way of being cooked and served, not to mention their ingredients.
The word polpetta was used for the first time in Italian in the XV century to describe the cuisine of Mastro Martino da Como. According to some, it derives from the French paupière because its shape recalls that of the eyelids. There is another hypothesis, though, which traces its origins back to ancient Persia. Kofta (typical polpette of the Middle East) probably derives from the Persian word koofteh, which means “minced meat”. They thus spread throughout the Middle East, and during the Arab conquest of Persia – as it had happened to the Romans after their conquest of Greece – the losers culturally conquered the winners, especially in terms of food.
The Persian culinary traditions, indeed, have influenced the Arab cuisine in a deep and lasting way as testified by polpette, which survived under the name of bonâdiq and reached Europe through the Arab conquest of Spain. In Spanish polpette are called Albondigas, a term stemming from the Arabic al-bonâdiq.
Although polpette are a traditional dish of Italian cuisine, they can actually be found in every country. In France and in Francophone countries they are called boulette, defined by the TLFi as “Petite boule de viandehachée, de purée, etc., destinée à la nourriture d’êtres humains ou d’animaux”, and, unlike polpette, they can also be made of fruit, vegetables and cereals. A particular type of boulette made in a Francophone country is the Lebanese falafel, a Middle Eastern variation consisting of spiced and fried legumes: broad beans, chickpeas and beans, chopped and seasoned with sumac, onion, garlic, cumin and coriander.
Historically, falafel were used by the Egyptian Copts to replace meat during the days of fasting. The term consists of three words that in Coptic literally mean “with many beans”. Falafel are generally served with hummus, but also with yogurt and/or vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers, either natural or pickled), in a soft and thin Arabic bread that can be easily rolled or cut in order to be filled with other ingredients. The great success of falafel in Lebanon is probably due to their affordability: they can be found everywhere, are even sold as street food, in the market stalls of big cities and villages, or in filling stations lost in the desert.
In short, what a delight!
Bruno Barbieri, Polpette che passione, Lodi,Bibliotheca Culinaria, 2014.
Ellen Brown, La Bible des Boulettes, Paris, L’Homme, 2010.
Lebrun Pierre-Brice, Petit Traité de la Boulette, Gap, Adverbum, 2015.
Leina Abirached, Kamal Mouzawak, AylaHibri, Manger libanais, Paris, Marabout, 2017.
Salma Hage, La cuisine libanaise, Paris, Phaidon France, 2013.
Written by Michele Bevilacqua, PhD Candidate in French Linguistics at the University of Naples “Parthenope” and at Artois University.