In this episode of Around the World in 80 Dishes, Chef Charles M. Rascoll of The Culinary Institute of America demonstrates a recipe for ful medames (stewed fava beans). This humble peasant food, which may date back to the time of the pharaohs, is eaten in many countries across the Arab world, but it originated in Egypt and is considered that country's national dish. Egyptians of all stripes start their day with a filling bowlful, and in Cairo and other cities, office workers and students buy ful for lunch from street vendors, who serve it in earthenware bowls or stuffed into pocket bread. Ful medames is also served in restaurants as a snack or meze.
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, medames may come from an Egyptian word for "ashes," which refers to the fact that the dish was originally cooked in a special pot known as a damassa that was buried overnight in the ashes of a fire. Long cooking is still the norm—most recipes call for simmering the beans over very low heat for many hours. (The modern-day damassa that most Egyptians use at home has a special heating element to maintain the low heat, but a regular slow cooker—or a carefully watched pot on the stove—will work just as well.) As they cook, the beans gradually soften and break down into a chunky, flavorful stew, which is then finished with a dressing of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and cumin. Ful can also be topped with hard-boiled eggs, tahini, tomato sauce, or even cream sauce—differing versions abound. The rustic, pita-like Egyptian bread called eish baladi is the traditional accompaniment.
Regardless of the variation in toppings, the one essential ingredient in ful medames is the small, brown Egyptian fava bean known as ful hamam. These are smaller than the large fava beans commonly known in the United States. They're typically used dried and unpeeled (the long cooking time breaks down the skins) and are available from Kalustyans.com or Amazon.com. In a pinch, canned brown favas can be substituted—they only need to be simmered for 15 minutes.
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- 2 cups small Egyptian fava beans (ful medames), soaked overnight (and left unpeeled)
- 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 lemons, quartered
- Salt and pepper
- 4–6 cloves garlic, crushed
- Chili-pepper flakes
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.
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. Otherwise, pass round a good bunch of scallions and quartered tomatoes and cucumbers cut into sticks.
Serve with tahina cream sauce (page 65) or salad (page 67), with pickles and sliced onions soaked in vinegar for 30 minutes.
Another way of serving ful medames is smothered in a garlicky tomato sauce (see page 464).
In Syria and Lebanon, they eat ful medames with yogurt or feta cheese, olives, and small cucumbers.
A traditional way of thickening the sauce is to throw a handful of red lentils (1/4 cup) into the water at the start of the cooking.
In Iraq, large brown beans are used instead of the small Egyptian ones, in a dish called badkila, which is also sold for breakfast in the street.
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