The traditional Egyptian breakfast of dried fava beans is also the national dish, eaten at all times of the day, in the fields, in village mud-houses, and in the cities. Restaurants serve it as a mezze, and it is sold in the streets. Ful medames is pre-Ottoman and pre-Islamic. It is probably as old as the Pharaohs. According to an Arab saying: “Beans have satisfied even the Pharaohs.” Egyptians gleefully tell you that the little brown beans have been found in pharaonic tombs and have been made to germinate.
There are many types of dried fava beans—small, middle-sized, and large, all of which can be used—and there are very good-quality canned ones. Most expatriates are happy with canned ones, which they improve on with flavorings and trimmings.
In Syria and Lebanon, they eat ful medames with yogurt or feta cheese, olives, and small cucumbers.
- As the cooking time varies depending on the quality and age of the beans, it is good to cook them in advance and to reheat them when you are ready to serve. Cook the drained beans in a fresh portion of unsalted water in a large saucepan with the lid on until tender, adding water to keep them covered, and salt when the beans have softened. They take 2–2 1/2 hours of gentle simmering. When the beans are soft, let the liquid reduce. It is usual to take out a ladle or two of the beans and to mash them with some of the cooking liquid, then stir this back into the beans. This is to thicken the sauce.
- Serve the beans in soup bowls sprinkled with chopped parsley and accompanied by Arab bread.
- Pass round the dressing ingredients for everyone to help themselves: a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, the quartered lemons, salt and pepper, a little saucer with the crushed garlic, one with chili-pepper flakes, and one with ground cumin.
- The beans are eaten gently crushed with the fork, so that they absorb the dressing.
- Optional Garnishes
- Peel hard-boiled eggs—1 per person—to cut up in the bowl with the beans.
- Top the beans with a chopped cucumber-and-tomato salad and thinly sliced mild onions or scallions.
- Serve with tahina cream sauce or salad, with pickles and sliced onions soaked in vinegar for 30 minutes.
EXCERPT from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden