Whose falafel is the best of all?
In Haifa’s downtown, at the foot of Mount Carmel, there are two falafel shops across the road from one another.
One is nicknamed The Elders, the other The Sons. The road is so narrow that the owners can almost touch each other. They can watch their opposing falafel-maker and measure the lines of customers forming in front of the shops.
Can you feel the tension building? I could and I still can. It never stopped me from eating there, sometimes at one shop, sometimes at the other. Occasionally, when I was especially hungry and in the mood of making comparisons, I visited both shops and entertained myself with deep existential questions such as, Whose falafel is better? Or, to put it more bluntly, Who wins? I will get to the answer later, but here is a hint: the answer has to do with my semi-philosophical position on competitiveness.
Falafel, for those of you who don’t know, is one of Israel’s national culinary treasures. The dish is served inside the pocket of a pita.
It consists of several meatball-like, deep-fried ground chickpea balls (each about an inch in diameter), a finely chopped veggie salad, and pieces of pickled cucumber. This happily-married combination is topped with lemony tahini sauce made of sesame seeds and, at times, with a hot red-pepper sauce.
In The Elders and in The Sons, the falafel balls are expertly formed using a molding device held in one hand and a tablespoon in the other. The falafel balls are then gently lowered into a large pan with boiling oil and fried to golden-brown perfection.
It all happens in front of your eyes, within a few minutes, while you are standing in line, eagerly waiting, taking in the rich, seductive aromas of Mediterranean spice.
Are the sons the descendants of the elders? I don’t know. I never dared to ask.
Why would the owners choose such a close competition? Wouldn’t it be wiser for one of them, or both, to move farther, to establish, then dominate a new territory?
Perhaps, the secret to success is the proximity. It gives rise to curiosity among customers. It produces tension, even drama. You savor the relationship you have developed with The Elders, but you fantasize about a culinary affair with the Sons.
You have enjoyed the Sons’ falafel, but you ask yourself, Isn’t it time for a more mature experience? You run scenarios in your mind, What if you would got caught, red-handed, mouthful, devouring falafels at the competition? You ask yourself, Will there be consequences?
We have all watched and experienced, first-hand, the toll competitiveness takes on our lives–not only in sports, business, politics, and world affairs, but also on personal relationships among co-workers, friends, even within families.
I can only imagine the drama a talented writer could create about a close competition between The Elders and The Sons: The sleepless nights of worry about the competition taking over; the fear of failure; a ruthless plot to steal a secret recipe or to spread false rumors (“Did you hear? A dead cat was found in the refrigerator”); and manipulative attempts to entice partners to switch sides. ‘This could end in a bloody murder!’ I thought to myself. But ‘Hold Your Horses!’ I immediately responded, ‘None of these had ever happened, and none is likely to happen.’
Perhaps, the secret to success is the competition. To survive, each store needs to perform excellently. Any decline in the quality of their falafel, no matter how small, or in their service, no matter how minor, would lead to a major competitive disadvantage. Excellence is not a choice here, it’s a condition for survival, for a balanced competitive co-existence.
A testament to the positive power of competition, at least in the case of The Sons and The Elders is this: Several decades after I had first tried their falafel, these two stores still operate successfully and are often included in the list of The Ten Best Falafel Shops in Israel. There are many hundreds of falafel shops in Israel, one on almost every street corner, so the stores’ lasting power is impressive.
How to win in business and life? There are life coaches who won big by giving advice on the subject. I have heard advice like: Set goals, learn from the best and from your failures, improve your communication skills, embrace change, work hard, work smart.
For some, winning is a matter governed by a natural instinct for survival, a matter of necessity. For others, it’s a game played with the goal of being the winner who takes all, a matter succinctly summarized by sentences such as “He who dies with the most toys wins.” The questions, though, linger: Is being competitive necessary? Is it beneficial? Do we have a choice but to compete? I will return with some thoughts about these matters, and with a winning recipe for falafel.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.