Ful Medames, or simply ful (fava or broad beans), is a staple across the Middle East, but especially in Egypt, where the common belief is that it was passed down from the pharaohs. I first had ful for breakfast in Cairo. It has all the elements of my favorite guilt-free comfort foods (guilt-ful comfort foods are in a category of their own) – simple but flavorful, hearty but light – the earthiness of beans contrasted with the cool crunch of fresh vegetable garnish, joined by the bright richness of extra virgin olive oil and the tang of lemon juice.
I first tried to make ful myself about eight years ago, without success. Apparently this was before I realized pretty much every question could be answered on the Internet. I cooked several pots of dried fava beans but couldn’t get them soft enough. Obviously I wasn’t very motivated. I have plenty of Egyptian friends, not to mention Jordanian, Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian friends and acquaintances who would have shared their ful recipes and techniques.
Recently I was having dinner with a group of friends in Portland, including one whose grandparents immigrated to the US from Syria. We talked about her family in Syria, what life is like for them as their country is torn apart. They are in a small village outside of Damascus and, for now, everyone is safe. She talked about her visit to Syria, before the war, and how her aunt would get up before dawn every day and prepare great spreads of beautiful food, with the most basic of tools. We were eating a delicious Northwest-chic meal but both started to pine for the ancient peasant foods of the Middle East. Then it occurred to me to ask her about ful. Yes! She makes it all the time. “Use canned beans,” she said. “I do.” My hopes and craving for ful were restored. I can open a can.
I have a great little Mediterranean grocery in my neighborhood and as I walked to buy some cans of ful beans, I couldn’t escape the little voice in my head. “Cheater,” it said. “The pharaohs did not eat canned ful.” So, I asked the Lebanese shop keeper how they make ful for the restaurant next door. The secret is to use dried baby beans. The skin on the mature beans is too tough. Even after soaking and cooking, mature beans must be peeled in order to mash up properly for ful medames. To avoid the labor of peeling the beans, use baby beans.
To be honest, I’m not sure “baby” is technically correct. The beans you want are small and brown.
I decided to try it both ways, with beans from a can and with cooked dried “baby” beans, and compare the results.
Measurements are all to taste.
Ful with canned beans
1 can ful beans
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
Cook the onion in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the can of beans, with liquid and let simmer for about 15 minutes. Add spices, salt, lemon and mash everything together with a fork or potato masher.
Ful from scratch
2 cups dried baby ful beans
1 large onion, finely chopped
4-6 cloves crushed garlic
1 large tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
Soak the beans over night. Saute onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne in olive oil for a minute or two in a large pot. Add drained beans, cover with fresh water and simmer, covered on very low heat until beans are soft, about 2-3 hours. Check the pot regularly and add water if necessary. When the beans are tender uncover and let the liquid reduce. Smash some of the beans against the side of the pot with a spoon to thicken the sauce. Add tomato and cook until the beans are thick but not too dry, still soupy. (The consistency is a matter of taste. I like it runny but not wet, thick but not dense.) Add salt and lemon juice just before serving.
Garnish to taste and serve with pita bread.
There are a variety of garnishes to be used in quantities and combinations to your liking. These are the ones I know of:
chopped or sliced onion, use a sweet or mild onion
chopped green onion
chopped boiled egg or a fried egg
drizzled extra virgin olive oil
Now that I have cooked and eaten a bowl each of ful from a can and ful from dried beans, I declare both totally satisfying. The only drawback I see from using the canned beans is the left over can. I foresee eating this dish often enough that I’ll feel better about using bulk dried beans.