My wife doesn’t much care for it, though that might be downplaying her disdain. When done well, it’s a two-day commitment, a tall order in this 24/7 working world. When prepared poorly, it turns into a nondescript glob with condiments (thank God for fresh lime juice).
And yet I find myself trying to produce an authentic bowl of that quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Trying, and so far falling shy of succeeding, though a convenient cheat has opened the way to ful on demand. (More on that later.)
I could cite cultural affinity and the gene pool to explain my interest, but my good Egyptian mother was not inclined to plop native dishes down on the dining table. She was more intent on helping her mostly American-born children — and there were a lot of us — feel at home growing up in suburban Seattle. Meals were Anglo-American affairs, though very much in keeping with a tight budget. For breakfast: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes from spring to fall, Quaker Oats from fall to spring.
Dried fava beans endlessly cooked with tomorrow in mind were not on the menu for a working mother.
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While ful medames stretches deep into Egypt’s past — Wikipedia notes that Ramses II was known to have offered nearly 12,000 jars of beans to the god of the Nile — my acquaintance only goes back to the previous decade. I was on assignment in the region in 2003 and figured it was about time I met my mother’s hometown. On the first morning in Cairo, I took a stroll around the tangled streets of Zamalek before seeking out breakfast. Ful was, of course, being served. And while I can’t say that first bite was revelatory, it was exotic enough to stick in my mind. Ful became inexorably linked to Egypt, a notion confirmed by later trips.
So when I recently came across a reference, I decided it was time to learn how to make this dish. Not that the basics are very complicated: soak dried fava beans in water for 12 to 24 hours, cover them with a change of water, bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down as low as possible while maintaining a slight simmer in a covered pan for 12 hours, only cracking the lid if you must to confirm if more water is needed. When they’re tender, mash up the beans to a rough texture, dress them with salt and condiments and you’re good to go: a vegetarian-friendly breakfast, high in protein and fiber, low in fat.
Condiments set off ful medames’ earthy mash of beans
Cooked long, the tough skins of the beans eventually go al dente (though one recipe suggesting only an hour-long simmer left skins like shards of plastic sandwich bags that were not about to surrender to teeth). My Zester Daily colleague Clifford A. Wright in his wonderfully encyclopedic book “A Mediterranean Feast“ calls for putting the pre-soaked beans in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes and then peel off the skin before the 12 hours of cooking begins. The beans break down to a creamy, soup-like consistency rather than a chewy, chunky texture. He, like others, also suggests cooking the beans with onion, tomatoes and red lentils.
The secret to ful medames is the condiments, which set off the earthy mash of beans. Red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper do well by it, as do ground cumin and coriander, lime juice, garlic sauce, tahini, grated boiled eggs. My personal favorite: topping them with a drizzle of date molasses and a runny sunnyside-up egg.
And then there’s the cheat: a recipe by Rebecca Federman, food blogger at Cooked Books, which appears on the Christian Science Monitor’s site. With a nod to a friend and to Cairo-born chef Claudia Roden, she offers up what surely is a sacrilege in some circles: ful made in minutes with canned fava beans. And if it’s not authentic, it’s quick enough for any fool to make and an earthy alternative to yet another morning spent with corn flakes.
- ¼ cup olive oil or more.
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
- 1 can of ful (fava beans), drained (I add some of the liquid from the can to the dish. You may want to add all the liquid, but then watch the salt).
- Some cumin, coriander, cayenne
- Salt and pepper
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat until warm and then add the onion until softened, about 5-6 minutes.
- Add the garlic until fragrant, 30 seconds or so, and then spices and salt and pepper.
- Cook until warmed through. Add more liquid or olive oil if the dish looks to be dry.
- Serve with lemon wedges, hard-boiled egg, and parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.
Main photo: The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley