Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Different Sort of Breakfast

Ful medames  (source:  Wikimedia Commons)
My latest food experiment has involved a modern ethnic cuisine instead of reconstruction of an ancient one. 

The dish in question is ful medames (the name is spelled a number of ways, but this one seems to be the most common in English language sources) and it is a popular breakfast dish in Egypt, the Sudan, and neighboring regions.  It could well be ancient in origin; "medames" supposedly comes from an Coptic word meaning "buried" which, in turn, may suggest that they were originally prepared by burying a pot of beans in close proximity with live coals (or containing heated rocks). Confirmation of the antiquity of any food type or recipe is, however, difficult where written sources or archaeology can't help out.

Modern ful (as the dish is sometimes called) is simply fava beans, boiled until they are soft, and then mixed with flavorings, usually olive oil and lemon juice.  Common additions to the recipe include mashed garlic, cayenne, and tomatoes or tomato sauce.  They are often eaten with eggs; the eggs may be hard boiled as shown in the picture here, but might also be fried or poached. They may also be eaten with flatbread or in a pita.

I became curious about ful when I started looking for quick, economical, low-carbohydrate lunch alternatives to sandwiches. There are many recipes for how to prepare it on the Internet; this one from Saveur caught my eye because it calls for canned fava beans and does not require soaking dried beans, which requires advance planning, as well as a source of dried beans.  My local supermarket carries canned fava beans, so I began with that.

What I didn't realize is that "fava beans" (or broad beans as they are sometimes called) come in different sizes.  The size used in ful medames is small, like a pinto bean.  What my supermarket had was the larger bean, more like a lima bean.   When I boiled the canned large size beans, the insides of the beans became soft, but the outer coating remained tough and the two tended to separate.  So my ful, though tasty, had many tough shells, a bit like old Scotch tape in texture, in it.  I picked out as many as I could while I was mixing in the flavorings, but I couldn't get them all.

This was frustrating, since I really liked the result, and my husband found it acceptable. The taste of the beans themselves was rather delicate, unlike Great Northern beans or pinto beans (so I'm not interested in using those easy-to-find varieties as a substitute).

Turning to other possibilities, I learned that carries canned small-size fava beans, and this variety sells for a reasonable 89 cents USD per 15-ounce can.  Unfortunately, shipping costs make the total cost prohibitive for me. 

I understand that "Middle Eastern" groceries are likely to stock this product. However, there are none located near me; the nearest I've learned of via the Internet are in downtown Philadelphia and are inconveniently located for regular shopping.   For now, I will continue to look for a closer source, but I may have to resign myself to making ful an occasional treat instead of a regular part of my diet.


  1. It might be a bit impractical, but you could also try online retailers; I have on occasion found myself eyeing Amazon's grocery section to see if I could get free shipping on five pounds of the right kind of red beans for red bean paste.

  2. That's a good suggestion. I have been looking into on-line retailers (and that may end up being my only option), but so far I haven't found any that both sell the sort of beans I want *and* sell them cheaply. I'm not giving up yet, though.

  3. Fade: You'll find this amusing.

    About two or three miles from my house, there's a Chinese grocery that carries red beans and red bean paste, among other, varied, Chinese pastries, junk food, cooking oils, cooking wines, and condiments. If you lived near me, you might be able to get what you want with little difficulty. But I'm interested in fava beans, not red beans, and favas have no place in Chinese cuisine.

    Whole Foods only carries dried favas that are huge and look as though they have really tough skins. No other market I've tried has had anything.

    I'll try to look for online retailers more methodically; hopefully something will turn up.