If I had to pick a quintessentially Egyptian meal enjoyed by both the working class and businessmen, young and old, women and men in Egypt on a daily basis … it would have to be ful medammes and ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel made with mashed fava beans instead of chickpeas used in other parts of the Middle East). Koshary would probably be a close second. Molokhia might be third on the list, or very close to the top – though that’s not a dish that is unique to Egypt. If you’re into street food, you’ll find carts selling ful and ta’ameya sandwiches on many a street corner in Egypt. I loved this post on the blog Migrationology about one traveler’s experience of eating ful medammes from a street cart in Egypt – he even includes a video in there for the full experience! But you should be careful if you decide to try ful off the street, since there have been reports of questionable colorants being added to the beans to give the impression of a better product. Better learn to make it yourself, so read on!
Ful, pronounced “fool” refers to fava beans, which are also known as broad beans in other parts of the world. Alternate spellings include fūl mudammas or foul medames. The word medammes means “mashed”, though it’s also purported to have been a Coptic (ancient Egyptian) word meaning “buried”, presumably in reference to the age-old cooking method of burying a covered pot of water with dried beans under hot coals. Ancient Middle Eastern texts indicate that this cooking method has been used to cook fava beans since the 4th century BC. Thankfully, we now have electric or gas stoves, so there is no need to fetch the coal to make this meal!
Ful medammes is quite easy to make, though it does require a bit of patience. I don’t know anyone who makes ful medammes by burying it in the ground, but I know a few people who make it from scratch like grandma does — by first properly soaking the beans for a couple of days, then boiling slowly for several hours till the beans are buttery-soft. Most people take the easy way out and buy canned fava beans, though that’s not without its own risk: the majority of canned beans have preservatives to maintain the beans’ color and texture, such as calcium disodium EDTA. Almost all can linings also have BPA, or Bisphenol A, which has been linked to a wide range of health problems, and is yet to be banned. Cooking the fava beans yourself is easy enough but requires a little mostly-passive preparation time before cooking it: soaking it in filtered warm water with a little bit of apple cider vinegar or lime juice for 24-48 hours – to make it more digestible when consumed. But, the good news is that it is well worth it!
Fava beans have been cultivated for thousands of years, and are believed to have been a staple of the eastern Mediterranean diet since 9000 BC or earlier, according to some recent archaeological findings. That’s a long time ago! It also helps that they’re easy to grow; and because they’re a legume, they (apparently) can be used as a cover crop to balance the nitrogen in the soil. I’ve even heard a suggestion to use the mineral-rich soaking water for your house plants or garden, though I have yet to try that myself.
However, fava beans haven’t always been the national food for Egypt; in fact, in ancient Egypt they were considered unclean and were even associated with the dead: “it was thought that the souls of the dead were enclosed in them and that they resembled the gates of hell.” (Grace Links). A little dramatic, don’t you think? Modern-day Egyptians seem to have completely shed this association however, since ful is eaten on a daily basis in Egypt. Fava beans come in many sizes, and Egyptians typically like the smaller variety, while the larger varieties are enjoyed by Iraqis and are also served for breakfast in an Iraqi dish called badkila.
The best thing about fool medammes is that it’s very filling, especially when eaten with a good fat like extra virgin olive oil or clarified butter. Many working class Egyptians start their day with sandwich ful (literally a ful pita bread sandwich), or with a bowl of fool medammes with soft boiled eggs. Coptic (Egyptian) Christians, who fast from animal products for Lent and Advent, often have ful medammes and ta’ameya (spiced fava bean falafel) during the fasts. Even when I’m not on a vegan diet, I sometimes make beans for breakfast and enjoy them with grass-fed butter and sunny-side up eggs.
In addition to the fact that they taste great and are very filling, fava beans also have a decent nutritional profile. They are especially high in fiber and iron, and are a good source of plant protein. They also have a good amount of vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium (Dr. Weil). Something I didn’t know about fava beans is that they are noted to contain [naturally occurring] L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine, which is used as a drug for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Who knew? Since they take quite a while to prepare, I usually make a large batch and eat from it throughout the week for breakfast or lunch. It also freezes well, so you can make a batch and freeze some of it for later use.
The recipe I have here is the most basic version of ful medammes with the spices that my dad uses to season it. If you want to be a minimalist about it, you can simply season with just salt, pepper, and olive oil. But personally, I really like the cumin, coriander, lime juice and tahini paste in there, as well as the fresh veggies. When I’m not fasting, I really enjoy my ful medammes with fried eggs and feta cheese! Brenda of MidEats adds tomato sauce to her ful muddamas. Some people also add some red lentils while the beans are cooking to thicken the sauce, but I haven’t found that to be necessary if you control the amount of liquid in the pot before mashing.
As with other dishes that are emblematic of a country’s cuisine and culture, you’ll find different preparations of the dish in various regions of the country. For example, in the case of ful medammes, residents of Alexandria in Egypt add a dash of shatta, or homemade hot sauce to the mash — a version that has come to be called ful iskandarani (Alexandrian fool medammes). I haven’t attempted making hot sauce, or shatta, but I hear it’s a simple recipe (ah, I think that’s a post in the making!).
Egyptian-Style Mashed Fava Beans (Ful / Fool Medammes)
Prep Time: 10 minutes + soaking overnight
Cook Time: 5 hours
Keywords: boil gluten-free nut-free soy-free sugar-free vegan vegetarian fava beans Egyptian
- 1 lb of dried fava beans, soaked for 24-48 hours
- filtered water, to cover (both for soaking and for cooking)
- 3 tablespoons of tahini, preferably raw
- 6-8 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon of cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander seed
- juice of 2 large limes (about 1/4 cup lime juice)
- extra virgin olive oil, to taste
- unrefined sea salt and black pepper, to taste
- ground cayenne pepper, crushed chili peppers, or hot sauce, to taste (optional)
- finely diced fresh tomato, cucumber, parsley, and scallions, to top (optional)
(1) Soak the fava beans: Add the beans to a large bowl and cover with filtered water. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or lime juice and mix into the water. Cover bowl and leave to soak for 24-48 hours to help make the beans more digestible.
(2) Rinse and remove scum: When you’re ready to cook the beans, rinse the beans and discard the soaking water. Though I find the following helpful in reducing the digestive distress that beans often cause, it’s an optional (but recommended) step: In a large pot, cover beans with water and bring to a boil. While the beans are coming to a boil, add filtered water to a separate pot or large teapot and also bring that to a boil. Once the beans are boiling, you’ll find some of the scum rising to the top. Discard this water and replace with the other boiled water. Make sure to only use hot boiling water as a replacement – if you add cold or lukewarm water, it might halt cooking or greatly increase the beans’ cooking time.
(3) Cook the beans: Once the beans have come to a boil once again, reduce to medium-low heat, and keep covered. Cook for 4-5 hours (water will be boiling but slowly), adding *hot* water every couple of hours when the water runs low due to evaporation. Make sure to add only hot water, as any cool water will slow down the cooking time. (4-5 hours is not a set time, by the way. You have to check every hour or so to see if the skin around the bean has become soft enough to chew; if not yet, you need more time). Once cooked, remove from heat.
(4) Remove and reserve cooking water: Once beans have cooked, you will have to check the cooking water. Before adding seasoning, check the liquid — you’ll only need a bit of the liquid in there to mash. I prefer removing much of the liquid first since it’s impossible to separate the liquid once seasonings are added and it’s blended. If there’s too much water, you’ll end up with fool soup (which I haven’t tried but don’t imagine to be good)! So, remove half or more of the liquid but reserve it to add if you need to thin out the mash.
(5) Mince the fresh garlic: Peel and mince the fresh garlic.
(6) Add the seasonings to the beans: Add the tahini paste, cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper, olive oil, fresh lime juice, and stir well.
(7) Mash the beans: Blend the beans using an immersion blender or food processor. The immersion blender is quite useful for this.
(8) Chop the vegetables and herbs of choice: Wash and chop the tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, and scallions.
(9) Serve the fool medammes: The bean dish is often served warm, with freshly baked pita bread used to scoop it up and eat. For a gluten-free option, you can use lettuce to scoop up the fool medammes. You can also serve with fried, poached, or soft-boiled eggs. Of course you can also get creative with spices and herbs, including a little bit of cayenne or hot sauce if you like it spicy!