Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 November 2003
Issue No. 664
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El-Tabei Mohamed El-Tabei:

The science of beans is a matter of pride


Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi

If beaniology was a profession, its master would probably be El-Tabei El-Tabei. He would have at the very least a doctorate in the subject, and his restaurant El-Tabei El-Domiatti would likely be the Harvard of beaniology.

"Fuul is in my blood," he says, rubbing his fingers together, as if to indicate the tactile nature of the topic. "You can't just decide to open a fuul shop, buy some beans and cook them just like that," he continues, snapping his fingers in the air. "It's not as simple as people think."

Sitting in the spacious living room of his Maadi apartment, El-Tabei is eager to talk about beans and the business which has brought fame to his family name.

"My grandfather started the business in 1926, in Damietta, where we're from. My father took over from him, and in 1954 brought the business to Cairo. And my brothers and I later took over from him," he explains. He is the eldest of four brothers. "When I give people my business card, which only has my first name on it, the first thing they ask is if I'm El-Tabei El-Domiatti. Our name is synonymous with fuul."

El-Tabei pauses and smiles mischievously to himself.

"They call us an institution," he chuckles of the now internationally renowned fuul and taamiya chain. "People ask what's the difference between our fuul and others," he says, pausing momentarily to share another knowing smile. "That's like saying what's the difference between a Mercedes and a Fiat 128!"

El-Tabei somewhat dispels the stereotypical image of a cloaked, turban-adorned countryman serving fuul out of the traditional idra. Like most Egyptians, his dress is so-called Western, and not many years ago -- before he devoted himself full time to the family trade -- he headed a bank.

"I gave up banking when my father passed away," he says. "I knew then that it was time."

Time, that is, to take over as his father had before him.

"Not only is this a family heritage, but also a national one," he says, asserting himself on an issue which some would dispute. "Everyone I meet from the Arab world says fuul(fava beans) is originally from their country, and that it's their traditional dish. Even the Americans have a claim on it with their own name for fuul (broad beans). But let's face it, it's definitely an Egyptian food," he says. "Our predecessors found the beans in their caves, and they cooked them. That's where it started from."

The variations, he explains, on the numerous birthright claims to the bean, come both in its international array of names, and its numberless modes of preparation.

"Do you know what taamiya is," he asks, with no intent of waiting for a response. "It is peeled fuul, soaked in water, then ground with greens, onions and spices until it becomes doughy. It's then rolled into balls and fried." El-Tabei slaps his hands together. "That's it," he says, "You can't make it differently. The Jordanians try to add humous to it and claim it their own by calling it falafel. And the Syrians add some things to try to take it from the Egyptians. But it's just simply not as good."

El-Tabei shakes his head. His daughters and wife laugh.

"He takes it very seriously," his wife shares teasingly. "I wouldn't dare bring fuul into this house and try to make it. Just by smelling it he would know it's not Tabei fuul!"

His daughters, Rana and Gina, smile and shake their heads.

"Let me tell you something," El-Tabei laughs. "These two girls will never put a bean into their mouths. In fact, I don't think Rana has ever eaten fuul! All they want is fast food!"

Foreign fast food, that is. Fuul, in its own local, nutritious right, is a fast food of a different class.

"It's fast, it's cheap, and it's filling. The difference between our fast food and that of the West, is that ours is actually nutritious. Particularly," of course, he adds, "El-Tabei El-Domiatti fuul, because our ingredients are the best."

El-Tabei -- whose name has almost iconic value in beaneries around the country -- has his own foolproof formula for business success.

"Let me explain something to you," he says, as if to prepare for a long sermon. "We're specialised. The others are not. He who does everything," he says matter-of-factly, "fails at everything. And he who does that," he laughs, "is a fool."

El-Tabei El-Domiatti is the master of just fuul .

El-Tabei Mohamed El-Tabei
"We put a shawerma (grilled shredded meat) stand in some stores just to satisfy some customers. But it's really just show -- and the stands are always outside the shop," he says. "Our attention goes into the fuul."

To this household name, attention means the quality of the bean, the mode of preparation and the consistency in quality and customer care.

"There are many different types of bean. There's soya, makmura, imported beans. Some sellers use British horsebeans and tell customers it's fuul. Here anything goes! Our bean is a special type -- from Upper Egypt, a place called Beni Mazaar. That area is specialised in bean cultivation," he explains. "And we deal per year -- that way we guarantee that our entire supply is of exactly the same grade."

Demand at El-Tabei drives consumption of about 1000 ardab of fuul per year, with each ardab producing about 156 kilogrammes.

"It takes about five hours to cook fuul in an idra. If we have twelve idras in a shop, for example, there is only a certain amount of fuul we can cook in a day. So from year to year production and consumption don't fluctuate too greatly."

Not much, in fact, changes at El-Tabei El- Domiatti.

"We still use the original recipe my grandfather used, and we still get the beans from the same place. There are three things that make us who we are: experience, the quality of the bean itself, and the quality of the oils and spices we use," he says. "The only difference between El- Tabei El-Domiatti now and then, is that at the time of my grandfather, he used to make one idra a day, he sold plates of fuul not sandwiches, and he didn't have his own bakery!"

And price of course.

"Oh yes," he laughs. "A sandwich at the time cost two or three mileems," he says. "Now it costs 60 piastres."

Price, perhaps, is the crux of the fuul and taamiya trade.

"Traditional foods like this are cheap," he explains of the business side of things. "Which means that the profit margin is very narrow. You need to really monitor everything very carefully, because any drop or fluctuation or waste calculates into a large loss," he says.

Fuul, like bread and sugar, has earned itself a silent status as the food of the masses: its cost never undergoing extreme fluctuations like its foreign fast food counterparts.

"We can't one day put the price of a sandwich up because we want to increase our profit margin. It wouldn't work. People buy because it's cheap. Let me tell you something," he continues. "We deal with both the rich and the poor. But the poor make up 75 per cent of our customers. If we increased our prices any more than five or 10 piastres at a time, we would lose 75 per cent of our customers. It's that clear-cut."

The situation leaves El-Tabei walking a fine line between profit and loss -- the nation's depreciating pound and economic unrest making fuul a tricky business.

"Of course you're going to ask me what the dollar has to do with fuul!" he laughs, leaning back in the sofa and slapping his hand down on his thigh.

"We raised the price of our sandwiches from 50 piastres to 60 piastres. That was a marginal increase given the costs had actually increased by 300 per cent," he starts. "The dollar is tied to absolutely everything. Let me explain," he says, shifting in the sofa, straightening his back, and taking a sip of his now probably luke-warm tea. "A jerkin of oil -- which we use extensively -- used to be LE32 just a couple of years ago. Now," he says, his eyes widening and his expression implying the coming of a shocking revelation, "a jerkin of oil is LE95!"

Momentary silence is called for as the figures are considered.

"Gargeer was 10 piastres per bunch, now it's 25," he picks up. "We use the dollar as an excuse to raise prices, but when the dollar goes down, we don't reduce prices! So yes, we do exploit it in a sense, but at the same time you need to realise that everything in some way is tied to the dollar!"

El-Tabei is on a roll.

"We are a consumer country. The oil we use is imported from Asia, the sesame seeds produced in Egypt -- used for tehina -- do not meet even one quarter of the country's consumption needs, so they import the rest from Sudan and Somalia and other places. The problem of wheat in Egypt is known, so we import the wheat too, and so the dollar dictates even the price of the local bread. The plastic bag that we put sandwiches in is also affected by the dollar, because the powder that the bags are made from is imported. So if you really look at what we make, we make nothing. That's why the dollar has such a strong presence here!"

He stops momentarily, seemingly satisfied with having made his point.

"And you know," he abruptly resumes, "If you think of it, 90 per cent of the raw materials we use in the country are imported! You go to the market to buy vegetables. Those vegetables were transported to the market on a truck -- probably imported, definitely with foreign spare parts. The bags or containers the vegetables are stored in are produced from imported raw materials. If you go to a sandwich shop, the utensils or machinery being used to chop and store and cook, are definitely made from imported goods. And then there's uniforms, name tags, shoes. All this, of course, is the dollar!"

And the dollar, of course, goes quite a long way.

"One of our regular customers is Osama El- Baz. He invited five or six people to El-Tabei -- he had made a bet with them that he could feed them all for $5. Well," he laughs, "they ate, had desert, drinks, paid, tipped the waiter, and there was still change left over!"

"We've had several amusing incidents at El- Tabei," he continues. "The former US ambassador, Mr Warner, used to work out at the Gezira Club in the morning, then he would come with his marines -- in their flannels with their big muscles showing -- to have breakfast at El- Tabei downtown. They would draw a huge crowd! And my goodness, people would come just to watch them eat, because most people eat two sandwiches and a few taamiya. They would eat 15 taamiyas and 15 plates of fuul each! And they would laugh, because they knew!"

The distinguished guest list at the original downtown branch is long.

"We receive Atef Ebeid; El-Baz of course, who personally comes into the kitchen and chooses his food; Ibrahim Nafie; the minister of the interior; the governor of Cairo; Hassan Khedr, the minister of supply; and even the president himself. Those are just a few. We get the diplomatic dignitaries too. I can tell you what they all eat," he chuckles. "El-Baz has plain fuul with olive oil, some pickles and two pieces of taamiya. And when he travels, he even takes some with him abroad. Like I said, our name is synonymous with fuul, and our reputation has not altered since my father first opened the downtown store in 1954."

Back then, customers were comprised of much the same eclectic mix -- employees from governorates coming to Cairo for work making up the morning and midday contingency and aristocratic families in suits and dresses making the evening crowd.

"This isn't just the poor man's food as people think!" El-Tabei laughs. "This time of year is very telling of that. Wives and drivers are busy doing other errands, so lots of times the big businessmen husbands pick up the fuul just before iftar on their way home form work. We're probably the only family in Egypt that doesn't have fuul for iftar. Only for suhour (pre-dawn meal preceding the fast)."

The family, minus the two El-Tabei sons, smile and nod their heads.

"Like all the other things we make, our fuul is world class," he says, suddenly switching to a rather stentorian tone. "When I was in England, I went to St Michael's and bought flannels. When I came back, very happy with their good quality, I decided to look at the label," he smiles. "Made in Egypt of course! And I was made to pay taxes on them! Our goods are top quality. Our problem is that we export them and leave the lesser quality goods here. Why don't we keep the good stuff here and make people come from around the world to buy here?"

Fuul, of course, is no exception.

"We've had opportunities to open in New York City, at the Port Authority on 42nd Street, and now in Holland," he says. "We also had small projects in Cyprus and Saudi Arabia, but various political circumstances forced us to close."

As a result, in his perspective, those nations no longer offer the world's best fuul -- a fact which may not, in retrospect, be such a bad thing for business.

"It's hard for me to do," he says in good spirit. "But in every country I go to I try the fuul and taamiya, and it's just not the same. But it's not a bad thing that the best fuul is based here. Every foreigner that steps foot into this country comes to us. They can't get it anywhere else, and they know that! Every guide book you pick up says that. No other fuul," he says, slowly shaking his head and raising his eyebrows, "is like the one you get from Damietta."

And no other recipe, his wife chimes in, is like the one concocted by the Tabeis.

"It's a secret recipe," she says teasingly. "He won't even tell me about it. He says that he needs a litre of club soda with every meal I make. It's impossible to compete with the Tabeis!"

El-Tabei shakes his head.

"No secret recipe, just the experience, the quality, and the consistency," he says. "My brothers and I work together very well. Our sole goal is to produce the best -- to maintain our family name. Like I said," he smiles. "We're an institution!"

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