If you like Mexican refried beans, you’ll love ful medames!
But before we get to the recipe, please indulge me in a quick trip down memory lane. When I was 18 I traveled around Egypt for a month on $5 a day (including accommodation). My food budget was tight, to say the least, but thankfully there were street vendors on every corner selling ful medames, a thick, fragrant puree of stewed fava beans served in pita bread; this inexpensive, delicious meal became my daily staple.
My European fellow-backpackers were aghast when I told them that I was living on ful; their travel guides had warned them never to eat street food at the risk of incurring “Pharao’s Revenge,” and only to eat at modern, sanitary restaurants. Buoyed by a combination of bravado and impecuniousness, I ignored their pleas and continued my daily fava fix — with no adverse side-effects as far as I could tell.
Frugal as I was, I managed to get through my month in Egypt with a few dollars to spare, which I decided to blow on dinner at a five-star “Western” hotel on my last night. I can’t remember what I ate, but I do remember how sick I was! For nearly 24 hours I emptied myself until I felt turned inside out. So much for modern, sanitary restaurants! If only I’d stuck to ful.
Fava, an ancient Mediterranean bean
Fava beans, also known as broad beans, have a long history of cultivation and consumption dating back to ancient times. The beans were originally grown in the Mediterranean region and were a staple food of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, they are grown and consumed around the world and are particularly popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.
Fava beans are highly nutritious and have many health benefits. Compared to other beans such as kidney beans, black beans, and chickpeas, fava beans are higher in protein, fiber, iron, and potassium. They are also a good source of vitamin K, folate, and magnesium.
A major health benefit of fava beans is their high fiber content, which slows the absorption of carbohydrates, thus helping prevent spikes in blood sugar levels.
Fava beans are also a good source of antioxidants, which help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can cause damage to cells and contribute to aging and disease. The antioxidants in fava beans help neutralize these harmful molecules, potentially reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Furthermore, fava beans have been linked to improved digestive health. The high fiber content in fava beans helps promote regular bowel movements and can reduce the risk of constipation and other digestive issues.
Finally, favas are unique in that they contain L-dopa, a chemical that the body converts into dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating mood and movement. While fava beans are not a reliable source of L-dopa for treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease (which typically requires higher doses of L-dopa than are found in food sources), some studies have suggested that consuming fava beans may have mild therapeutic effects for people with Parkinson’s disease, particularly in combination with standard medications.
Delicious, nutritious and so versatile!
In addition to their health benefits, fava beans are a versatile culinary ingredient. They can be used in soups, stews, salads, dips and to make falafel, and are often paired with other typically Mediterranean ingredients such as garlic, lemon, and olive oil, as here.
Ful Medames (also spelled foul medames) is a traditional Egyptian dish that consists of cooked fava beans seasoned with various spices and ingredients. The dish is typically served as a breakfast food and is often accompanied by pita bread, boiled eggs, vegetables, and other toppings.
The preparation of Ful Medames can vary depending on the region and the cook, but the basic ingredients include fava beans, garlic, cumin, lemon juice, and olive oil. The beans are usually soaked overnight, cooked with garlic and spices, and then mashed or blended to create a thick, hearty mash. Toppings can include chopped tomatoes, parsley, onions, and pickled vegetables.
Fresh fava beans have a woefully short season — just a few weeks during the spring — but you can find dried fava beans at Middle Estern markets or online. When I visited my local Mediterranean store, I was blown away by the variety of fava beans on display. There were:
Canned, cooked beans like these:
Large, brown fava beans like these:
Small, brown fava beans like these:
Large, yellow, peeled fava beans like these:
Small, split, shelled fava beans this these:
You get the picture.
When I demonstrated this recipe during a webinar, I used canned beans to make ful medames. A few days later I made a batch using the large, yellow beans which I soaked and cooked before turning them into ful. Both versions tasted great, and for people who don’t have the time to soak, drain and cook beans, the canned beans win hands-down (though I recommend draining the beans well before cooking the ful as the brine is quite salty).
Ful Medames (Egyptian fava beans)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 cans ful medammes drained; e.g., Tazah brand (available online or at Mediterranean or Middle Eastern stores)
- 2 cups water or, for extra protein, use chicken bone broth
- salt to taste, add at the final seasoning
- ¼ tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 2 tbsp lemon juice freshly pressed
- ½ cup fresh cilantro or parsley, or a combination of both; coarsely chopped
- hard-boiled eggs, quartered or sliced
- sliced tomatoes
- fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, mint - coarsely chopped
- crumbled feta or goat cheese
- olives, pitted and sliced or coarsely chopped
- fresh or pickled onions
- fresh or pickled cucumber
- lightly toasted seeds or nuts
- In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil until it starts to shimmer. Add the onion and saute, stirring every 2 minutes or so, until it starts to turn translucent - about 5-6 minutes.
- Add garlic, cumin and freshly ground black pepper and saute another minute, stirring constantly. (Don't add salt at this point as the canned beans are salted; you can always add more later during the final seasoning.)
- Add the drained, rinsed beans and the water. Bring to a boil and cook on low heat, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove lid and cook for another 5 minutes until half the liquid has evaporated.
- Remove from heat and mash the beans. For a coarse texture, mash with a potato masher. For a smoother texture, process in a food processor to desired consistency. If the puree seems to dry for your liking, add a little more water until you achieve the desired consistency.
- Season to taste with pepper, salt and fresh lemon juice. Accompany with the garnishes and let everyone help themselves to ful and top it as they please. Drizzle with herbed tahini sauce if desired (as pictured).
- Refrigerated in a tightly sealed container this keeps for 4-5 days. Freezes well, so why not make a double batch?