When a new batch of pulses arrive at the Bean Store we carry out what the food industry would call organoleptic quality testing. We buy prefer to think of it as eating... We cook in the way anyone might at home - usually we follow a simple recipe - we need to be certain the pulses taste delicious and cook perfectly. Tough job.
Maris Bead variety whole fava beans arrived this week, so we made a simple ful - a fava stew steeped in history and tradition. The passed the test with flying colours.
We might have largely forgotten fava beans in the UK for 400 years, but the rest of the world certainly didn't. People living in North Africa and the Middle East particularly love them, and their favourite way to prepare the whole beans is in a simple stew called Ful Medames (or simply ful).
Ful means ‘beans’ in Arabic and medames is widely thought to originate from a Coptic word meaning ‘buried’. Whether true or not, it hints at the way ful is traditionally cooked – buried under hot coals in a sealed pot and left over night.
The story goes that in medieval Cairo when fuel was in short supply, ful would be cooked in the embers of the fires that heated the water in the great bath houses after they’d closed for the night. In the morning the bath houses would wholesale ful to cookhouses and street vendors who were themselves unable to afford wood fuel. The bath house monopoly lent its name to ful hammam (literally ‘bath beans’), a particularly small variety of bean quite likely very similar to our own Maris Bead.
No longer the monopoly of the bath houses, ful is cooked in homes, bought from street stalls, served in restaurants - the Egyptian Army once got in touch to asked if we could supply 10,000 tonnes of beans for ful (no). Much as in the Middle Ages ful is still usually eaten for breakfast and is particularly important during Ramadan when it’s eaten before sunrise to sustain observants through fasting.
As with any food with a long history and close links to culture and identity, there are almost as many recipes as there are cooks. The origins of ful are disputed, though Egypt has the strongest claim – and counts it as a national dish. The ‘correct’ ingredients are hotly contested – whether to include tahini or lemon, add chilli or garlic; perhaps heretically we’ve previously shared a recipe that includes tomato in the ful.
For our organoleptic testing we went for the simplest of ful recipes. With the exception of the chillies, perhaps recognisable to the bath attendants of medieval Cairo.
Small beans, warm spice, lots of olive oil. Earthy, warming and aromatic – the best breakfast in the world?
Serves 5 to 6
For the salad:
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