FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
Ful: the Egyptian National Dish
By Clifford A. Wright, Cook and Author
Some claim that the roots of ful mudammas can be traced to Pharaonic Egypt. Interestingly, that claim is not so obvious. Although quantities of beans have been found in Twelfth Dynasty tombs (1991-1786 B.C.), some writers have suggested that beans were not commonly cultivated in ancient Egypt, and Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., mentions the fact that the Egyptians "never sow beans, and even if any happen to grow wild, they will not eat them, either raw or boiled."
Some, but not all, commentators say that the word mudammas was originally Coptic, meaning "buried," and its use here might mean that the beans are buried in the pot. Although there are countless ways of embellishing ful, the basic recipe remains the same. Once the ful is cooked it is salted and eaten plain or accompanied by olive oil, corn oil, butter, samna (clarified butter), buffalo milk, béchamel sauce, basturma (pressed and dried beef fillet seasoned with cumin, garlic, and other spices), fried eggs, tomato sauce, garlic sauce, tahini, fresh lime juice, or other ingredients.
There are different kinds of fava beans and different cooking times, depending on their size, so you must make sure you use the right kind. The only fava bean used for making the prepared dish known as ful is the smaller, rounder one called ful hammam (bath fava) by the Egyptians. They should be cooked until soft; there should be no "bite" to them. The other kinds of fava beans used by Egyptian cooks are ful rumi, the large kidney-shaped fava beans you may be more familiar with; and ful baladi, country beans, of middling size. Ful nabit (or nabid) are fava beans sprouts, ful akhdar are fresh fava beans, and ful madshush are crushed fava beans.
There is an interesting story about how ful hamman came to be known as "bath beans." Professor Janet Abu-Lughod, whose authoritative book on Cairo published by Princeton University Press is now a classic, told me the story of ful. In the Middle Ages, the making of ful was monopolized by the people living around the Princess Baths, a public bath in a tiny compound near today's sabil (public drinking fountain) of Muhammad Ali Pasha, a block north of the two elegant minarets of the Mosque of Sultan Mu'ayyad Shaykh above the eleventh-century Bab Zuwaylah gate. During the day bath-attendants stoked the fires heating the qidras, huge pots of bath water. Wood was scarce, so garbage was used as fuel and eventually a dump grew around the baths. When the baths closed, the red embers of the fires continued to burn. To take advantage of these precious fires, huge qidras were filled with fava beans and these cauldrons were kept simmering all night, and eventually all day too, to provide breakfast for Cairo's population. Cookshops throughout Cairo would send their minions to the Princess Baths to buy their wholesale ful.
My first taste of Egyptian ful in Cairo was quite different from the Lebanese-Palestinian version that I was familiar with from my former wife's family. In the Palestinian version of this dish the final result is not as soupy as the Egyptian one, and although it, too, is popular as a breakfast preparation, it is as likely to be eaten as part of a mazza. While in Egypt I tried ful bi'l- daqqa, with a garlic sauce; ful husniyya, with hard-boiled eggs and a baked béchamel sauce; and, my favorite, the flavorful ful bi'l-basturma wa'l-bayd, with basturma (dried and spiced beef) and fried egg. Ful with a drizzle of water buffalo samna (clarified butter), a pinch of salt, flatbread, and scallions on the side was also very good.
Although we had some delicious ful dishes at the Filfila restaurant in Cairo, it took my friends Ziad and Haniya Baha ad-Din to show us a "real" ful-shop, as Ziad called it. We met several weeks later at the venerable Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, famous as British headquarters during World War II, and before that as the scenic background of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Ziad, a connoisseur's connoisseur, guided us to a ful-shop on the Shari' Abdul Fattah al-Hadani. His wife, Haniya, is an anthropologist and a fascinating expositor of Egyptian food. We ordered four different ful. The first was "plain," only with butter, one was with fried eggs, one was with tahini, and the fourth was with tomato sauce. They were all quite good, but surprisingly the plainest one, the one with butter, was the best.
Haniya told me that there are countless ways of making ful. They vary around Egypt depending on what is available, but the basic recipe remains the same. Into a big pot, usually a special pot, a ful-pot (qidra), narrow at the base, wide in the middle and narrow again at the top, you put the dried fava beans in to soak in water for 8 to 24 hours. Then you add the onion, tomatoes, a bit of salt and a few tablespoons of dried red lentils, which helps the color, she said. It is simmered over very low heat all night, covered so the beans don't discolor, and is usually eaten in the morning for breakfast, although Egyptians will eat it any time of the day.
In every case you must salt it yourself since it is never salted. We ate country-style whole wheat bran flatbread, aysh baladi, with it.