Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The republic of ful

Mai Samih follows the journey of ful, cooked fava beans, from the kitchen to the breakfast table

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ful Medames, or mashed fava beans, is a national dish eaten by rich and poor alike. For the poor, it is their only meal, and for the rich it is essential eating for breakfast. During the holy month of Ramadan, ful is eaten for both iftar, the first meal after Muslims break their fast, and sohour, the meal they eat before they begin the day’s fast. In many places a ful cart in the street is the place where you will find people gathered together from different backgrounds.

According to the Oxford Dictionary the word fava is an originally Italian word derived from the Latin faba meaning “bean”. Fava beans were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even earlier. Traces of the beans have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

They are mostly eaten in Mediterranean countries where they are grown. The plant is from the same family as the pea, and the beans are cooked in stainless steel or metal containers called damasa. If the beans are prepared in restaurants a larger container, called a qedra, is used.

Sobhi Abdallah makes ful in a mostawad (public oven) in the Cairo district of Bulaq Al-Dakrour. He compares how ful was prepared in the past with how it is prepared today.

“In the past the fava beans were sifted and washed, and the pots were also washed, as they still are. The only difference is that a pot of ful was then put in what was called a Beit Al-Nar, a hole in the ground in which the pot was buried in sand heated by burning rubbish. Public baths used to burn rubbish to generate heat for hot water, and the heat was used to cook the beans. Today, we use gas cylinders,” he says.

 “If we don’t have gas, the pots of ful are placed on a metal shelf with wood underneath it. The wood is burned, heating up the ful. In the past, ful makers used to submerge a qedra in a Beit Al-Nar from two in the afternoon to two in the morning. Now the process only takes six hours or so using wood.”

The bathhouse next to the mostawad in Boulaq Al-Dakrour is now used for stabling horses. It consists of small brick rooms painted white inside a bigger mudbrick structure roofed with palm fronds.

On the left-hand side of the entrance there is a metal shelf with four spaces for pots. On the shelf there is a qedra. The mostawad is in the middle of a narrow, dusty street that is part of a labyrinth of small streets behind the Wekalet Al-Balah commercial area.

Abdallah refutes rumours that harmful substances are used to give the ful its colour. “We only use beans, lentils, and rada [bread crumbs] as ingredients and nothing else. We add no artificial colours to the beans. Those who add colour to the beans are preparing them wrongly. Food colouring interferes with the cooking, and imported ful also does not tend to cook quickly and turns black in colour, meaning that some unscrupulous people will try to colour it.”

Egyptian fava beans are the most expensive and also the highest quality. Abdallah says that some ful cart owners “buy imported beans from England or even China so they can make a higher profit. A ton of baladi [Egyptian] ful beans costs about LE1,300, leaving little profit margin. But homegrown ful can also be cooked in six hours, unlike imported ful, which can take up to 12 hours to cook.”

Mohamed, a ful cart owner in Giza, agrees. “We do not use colour in our ful. We wash our beans properly and leave them to boil at home for 12 hours and then we sell them to our customers. There is a type of fava beans called festa that costs less than the baladi beans that some merchants use, but we only use baladi beans,” he says.

Abdallah complains of the deteriorating state of the ful producers. “I am helping the owner of the mostawad after his carts were confiscated. I own a few carts myself, and I have given some of them to him so he can make a living. The Ministry of the Environment has closed down many of the mostawad around here because of the smoke that it says pollutes the air. But all the places that prepare ful use gas cylinders now anyway.”

 “In the past we used to have an average of 80 ful and beleelah [boiled wheat seeds served in milk like cornflakes] pots in our mostawad, and we supplied 20 ful carts whose owners used to come from Shubra, Rod Al-Farag, Al-Sahel, Al-Zawia Al-Hamra and Al-Sharabiya.

“But today we only have an average of 18 pots. The local authorities and the ministry have banned the carts from coming to the mostawad. I don’t see how the traditional way of producing ful can now be restored,” he says.

Abdallah adds, “We need the government to provide us with more gas cylinders and clean places to prepare our fava beans.”

 Fava beans are a staple food prepared by shelling then drying the beans and cooking them in water at a very low heat for several hours or overnight. The ful is served by adding oil, salt and lemon and in some cases cumin, and is served with bread for breakfast.

Fava beans prepared in almost the same way are still served in Greece. In Italy they are eaten in the form of a soup or with artichokes as a salad with lamb or guanciale (Italian dried pork) on a 1 May picnic.

 Ful in Egypt is also the primary ingredient in falafel, a mixture of green vegetables and ful that is made into a paste, fried and served.

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