What are ful medames?
Ful medames (فول مدمّس), more simply called ful, are an Egyptian vegan breakfast made up of cooked fava beans flavored with lemon juice, garlic and served with olive oil, chopped parsley and tomatoes.
Ful is an Arabic word (plural) which means beans. Medames is a Coptic word which means “buried”. Originally, this dish was cooked in a pot buried in hot coals.
This dish consists mainly of cooked beans, specifically faba beans, and is generally eaten for breakfast or lunch with pita bread.
This inexpensive dish, considered by the Egyptians as a “gift from God”, is traditionally prepared with dry beans.
They are boiled in water until tender. Cooking can sometimes take a whole night, the beans being placed on the fire before bedtime so that they can be eaten upon waking for breakfast.
In the modern version, the one presented here, canned beans are used and they are obviously soaked, which saves time for an equally delicious result.
How to prepare ful medames
The lucky ones who will find a Middle Eastern market nearby, will undoubtedly find canned faba beans, which can therefore be reheated and seasoned.
Otherwise, here is how to prepare ful medames with dry beans:
Soak the beans overnight with a touch of baking soda to aid digestion. Rinse them thoroughly, place them in a cast iron pot, and cover them with water.
Cook until the beans become tender. Season with salt and season.
Whatever beans are used, at the end of the recipe, they are coarsely mashed until divinely creamy and flavored with garlic, cumin, lemon and, depending on taste, other spices.
The beans can be served in mezze or as a main dish.
In Upper Egypt, especially around Aswan, ful medames are served in sandwiches, in flat bread called eisch ful, just like falafels are served.
Ful medames cook slowly in a special pot called qidra (pronounced edra). Today, all the spices and condiments are allowed to garnish the traditional version: garlic, onion, chili pepper, chopped cilantro, tahini etc. Some even garnish ful with a béchamel or tomato sauce, or even accompany it with spicy dried meat called basturma.
What is the origin of ful medames?
Ful medames date back to ancient Egypt.
An indisputable proof of the consumption of ful is a cache of 2,600 dry beans found in a late Neolithic site on the outskirts of Nazareth. Nazareth is a city in the north of Israel, in the Galilee.
The method of cooking ful is also mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi, indicating that this method has been used in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East since the 4th century.
The Talmud Yerushalmi, Talmud of Jerusalem (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשַׁלְמִי), is a collection of rabbinical notes from the 2nd century to the end of the 5th century, concerning the Jewish oral tradition known as Mishnah.
Ful medames began to gain popularity in Egypt in the Middle Ages, when they were consumed by women, mainly in public baths.
In fact, in the Middle Ages, the making of ful medames in Cairo was almost monopolized by the clients of the Princess thermal baths, a public bath in a tiny complex near the famous current public fountain of Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, north of the two no less famous minarets of the Sultan al-Muayyad mosque above the 11th century Bab Zuweila gate.
During the day, the clients of these old-fashioned spas fanned the fires by heating the qidras, which are huge pots filled with bath water.
Wood being scarce and expensive at the time, taking advantage of the embers of the bath, women used them as fuel by filling these cauldrons with beans, and letting them simmer overnight.
A true organization finally developed around these baths and other public baths. When they closed, the red embers continued to burn. To take advantage of these precious fires, huge qidras were filled with beans that simmered every night, and possibly during the day, to provide breakfast for the people of Cairo.
The Princess baths sold beans and all the cuisines of Cairo sent their minions to buy their ful in bulk. People even ended up sometimes calling them ful ḥammām, meaning “bath beans”.
Ful medames in the Arab world
Many ful dish recipes have been exported from Egypt to other parts of the Arab world, but also to Africa and Asia, but especially to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Arab Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
In Lebanon, the recipe is similar to the Egyptian recipe except that chickpeas and tahini are added to it.
In Syria, ful is also the quintessential breakfast dish, popular especially in Aleppo. The beans are left to simmer in large copper jars overnight, to be served the next morning. The beans swim in the tahini, and olive oil, and are topped with Aleppo pepper paste on top.
In Yemen, the ful are simmered with a tomato sauce, chopped pepper, and onions and flavored with cumin and cilantro.
In Ethiopia and Eritrea, ful are one of the few dishes that is not served with injera bread with standard bread made with wheat flour, which is not entirely typical of Ethiopian and Eritrean diets. The beans are garnished or mixed with a combination of oil and berbere.
In Sudan, ful are served for breakfast. The beans are first cooked with onions and olive oil and then seasoned after cooking with paprika, cumin, and lemon juice. They are then served topped with raw tomato, hard-boiled egg and parsley.
In Morocco, ful are known as bissara and consist of fava beans and split green peas called jalbana, boiled with garlic and served with cumin and seasonings. They are particularly popular in the north of the country and are especially eaten during the cold winter months.
In Algeria, the fava beans are steamed until tender. Salt and sometimes pepper and cumin are added. Ful are eaten without sauce, unlike in Egypt, except in Constantine where they are called ros bratel, a specialty of Jewish cuisine, this dish is flavored with cilantro and is spicy.
In Tunisia, the fava beans are cooked in lemon water. Salt and cumin are added at the end of the cooking. In Tunisia, ful are consumed without sauce.
- 1 (20 oz.) can ful medames (fava beans)
- 5 cloves garlic , pressed
- 1 lemon , freshly squeezed
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 small bunch parsley , finely chopped
- 1 tomato , seeded and diced
- ½ teaspoon Cayenne pepper or other red chili pepper (optional)
- Olive oil (to serve)
- Add the fava beans with their liquid in a large Dutch oven and heat them over medium heat for 10 minutes.
- In a bowl, combine the garlic, salt, and lemon juice.
- Transfer the warmed beans to another bowl.
- Using a mortar, mash the beans until just over half of the mixture is puréed.
- Add the mixture of garlic, lemon juice and cumin. Mix.
- Add the Cayenne pepper (or other red chili pepper).
- Serve the ful medames with a teaspoon of chopped parsley and tomatoes, and drizzle with olive oil.