It was an early winter morning in Alexandria, Egypt. A town on the Mediterranean coast of that country that used to be one of the greatest storehouses of knowledge during the Hellenistic era, and founded by Alexander The Great himself. I awoke to the sounds of vendors trailing mules and wooden food wagons on the street underneath the balcony of my family’s vacation apartment. They hollered out to the blank walls of the buildings on the street what they had to sell: eggs, bread, vegetables, and most importantly, fava beans, or foul mudammas.
My aunt yelled back to each of them the quantities of what she wanted, then lowered a basket with a rope tied around the handle, which was in turn tied to the rail of the balcony. Beforehand, she put the required fare of pounds and piastres in the basket, and then hauled back up respectively from each vendor fresh, steaming, whole wheat pita bread, eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and shelled fava beans.
This was how breakfast was done in Egypt. One vendor comes down the street with a wagon-load of bread. He calls out “Does anyone want bread?”. Anyone that wants bread goes through the aforementioned basket transaction. Another vendor comes through with eggs. The process repeats itself, and so on until you have all of the fixings you need for a traditional Egyptian breakfast of stewed fava beans with vegetables and eggs.
“It’s Pronounced ‘Foo-wul'”
Indeed it is. As memory serves, all the ingredients except the eggs were stewed together for a good amount of time in a giant pot (we were feeding an familial army of 12), then the eggs were cracked on top of the bubbling bean stew to cook until “sunny-side up”. At which point they were seasoned and removed from the pot onto a plate while the bean stew was put into a large bowl to serve the breakfast family style. The pitas were waiting in the oven and were served in a cloth wrapped basket alongside everything, and if you really want to get traditional, you can put a bowl of raw hot peppers out on the table for folks to munch on as they scoop up their beans and eggs with the bread.
Fava beans come in many shapes and colors. Some of the most common ones that you will see are these:
The ones that are used in the breakfast dish that I’ll describe are of the brown variety, but are less broad than the ones pictured above. They actually look a bit like black eyed peas, but with the same brown hue as in the picture. You do want to seek out the canned variety, as shelling the beans and cooking them from their dry state is really not worth the time and effort when a can costs 98 cents. The best sources in Brooklyn that I’ve found for them are Sahadi\’s , which the Park Slope Food Co-op also sells, and Berlik Market, which we’ve mentioned before, and sells varieties in “styles” from all over the Middle East by country. Last time I was there they had Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Jordanian, Turkish, and Syrian style foul mudammas. Seriously, give Berlik your business if you want authentic Middle Eastern food.
The ones that they have at Sahadi’s look like this:
Once you’ve got these babies in hand, you’re ready to start F-F-F-Foulin’.
This will make enough to feed 4 people:
2 Cans foul mudammas / small round fava beans
4 Cloves garlic
Whole wheat pita bread
Salt and pepper
Get a medium sized sauce pan. For judging size, think about the fact that you’re going to have 4 eggs spread on top that need to cook until they reach “sunny-side up” status.
1. Finely chop the onions and garlic, then saute in olive oil in the pan until mostly translucent.
2. Don’t pity them, dump those fouls in the pan with a can-full of tap water.
3. Let stew for approx. half an hour, or until the beans render a sauce that’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.*
*This is a very common description in cooking lore of when the right sauce consistency is achieved. In this case, as the base of your sauce is water, you should only barely be able to see the back of the spoon through the sauce. If there are any Photoshop nerds out there, you’ve got it right when the sauce is at about 80% opacity.
4. Add salt, pepper, cumin, and corriander to taste.
5. Heat your oven to 200 degrees F.
6. Roughly chop tomatoes and throw those in there. Let a bit of the water that they give boil off. Remember, you still want to keep that sauce consistency.
7. At this point you’ll want to throw your whole wheat pitas in the oven to get warm. If you have an large oven-proof plate or bowl, it’s okay to pile them on top of one another, they don’t need to bake like cookies.
8. Squeeze a quater to half a lemon on top of the stew and mix that in.
9. Immediately crack the eggs on top of the bubbling stew. Let sit until they achieve sunny-side up status. Since they are not sitting in the bottom of a hot pan, this will take a bit longer than you may be used to. Just wait until all of the whites are white and not clear and, um, slimy. While this is going on, add S&P, and C&C if you want, to season to taste.
10. Get a large plate. Take a spatula and scoop those eggs off the top of the stew. It doesn’t have to be neat. Remember, this is the Egyptian version of a country breakfast. Take a slotted spoon and grab any extra egg bits off the top of the stew, and spread the ensuing sauce and egg bits around the edges of the plate.
11.. Transfer the stew into a large bowl. If you have a ladle, it makes it very easy to set this bowl out on the table to serve family-style.
12. Pull the pitas out of the oven. Cover them with a clean dishcloth so they don’t get dried out.
Take the plate of eggs, bowl of fava bean stew, and pitas out to the table. Sit and enjoy.
Historical Side Note
Fava beans are one of the oldest recorded crops raised by civilized man. Back in ancient Greece and Rome, favas were used in voting. One cast a green fava for a ‘yes’ vote, and brown for a ‘no’. The green variety are used in the Egyptian version of falafel, known colloquially as “Taow-meyyah”. Stay tuned for a post on that subject/recipe later. The history of this staple is fascinating, and when you realize that people began cultivating it sometime around 6000 BC, and coupled with the fact that I first experienced it in a place as laden with ancient history as Alexandria, you may be able to see why this particular breakfast had a certain significance. Also, as it is now the middle of January, this might really be the appropriate time to start thinking about hearty breakfast stews that can sustain you through the cold winter months. While the Hudson is no Mediterranean, maybe we can take solace in the fact that we live in a time and place where we can reach back through the ages and pull back a thousands of years old recipe that can provide us with warm comfort and a taste of sunnier climates.